Game On! After a face-to-face with Bob Knight,commissioners endorse casino vote

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Former Wichita Mayor Bob Knight, as well as protesters from Marion and Harvey counties, came back to Marion County’s commission room Monday to talk about a destination casino in Marion County.

In the end the commissioners decided to stay the course: Marion County voters will be asked to let their opinion about casino gambling be known by mail-in ballot in an advisory, non-binding election that could lead to Knight’s group locating a casino-resort complex here.

County Clerk Carol Maggard said the election roughly remains on schedule, with the ballots to be mailed Dec. 9 with a deadline of Dec. 22 to be returned.

Voters in Harvey and Sumner counties will be holding similar elections.

Knight, who emphasized that he had been invited to appear in every county he had visited and did not come by his own request, spoke for himself and his group.

Glenn Thompson, a resident of Wichita and executive director of the anti-gambling grass-roots group Stand Up For Kansas, did nearly all of the speaking for the protesters.

Thompson spends much of his time speaking and lobbying at the Kansas Legislature.

A few Marion County residents present had previously acknowledged they favor the casino, but they stayed quiet.

The commission room was filled to overflowing with more than 30 persons in the room and perhaps 20 more in the hallway.

Television videographers took chairs at the commission table for filming that are normally reserved for meeting participants while some county residents sat on the floor.

Toward the end of the meeting, Commissioner Randy Dallke told the group he feels he was elected to bring economic opportunity to Marion County, and that by bringing in the contact for the casino, he feels he has done that.

“Now,” he said, “the people should be allowed a vote to decide which course we take on the referendum.”

All three commissioners said they have constituents both in favor and against a casino. Commission Chairman Bob Hein told Knight that as commissioner for the district that includes Hillsboro, he is getting the most pressure to be against the casino.

Commissioner Dan Holub moved to continue with the election “to allow the voters to speak.”

Hein seconded the recommendation, with Dallke saying he would if Hein didn’t want to, to make the vote 3-0.

Dallke said since it has been questioned where the $9,100 to $10,000 now estimated for the election will come from, he moved to take it from $50,000 budgeted to hire an economic director.

Holub seconded the motion, which passed 3-0.

Knight told the commissioners he was returning Monday with the same message he left them with last month: that if they want Marion County to be considered by his investors for a casino, they need to have an election with Marion County voters in favor of the proposal.

Once that is completed, a proposal could be brought to the attention of the governor and the Legislature for a vote in 2006.

“I can’t make you any guarantees,” Knight said, adding that his group isn’t spending money to study locations and plans in specific counties until the votes in those counties are known.

He said that if Marion County is the only county to vote favorably, it would receive the most attention. If it was one of two counties, it still would get more attention.

Knight said he respected persons who opposed casino gambling for spiritual reasons, but not when they “invented” economic facts and statistics to support claims. He responded to contentions about problem gamblers by saying that people also get into trouble with credit cards.

Knight said his group employs some of the top consultants in the nation who are basing decisions on hard economic facts, and who are willing to invest their own money.

He said he understood that local governments have to continue with new strategies to meet demands for their areas “or you stay mediocre.” He said he has noted that his own City of Wichita is spending more money currently than it takes in.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think there was some possibility of locating here, but we haven’t done our studies yet,” Knight said.

Dallke asked if it was true the vote approval for casino gambling would have to be large to attract Knight’s group.

Knight replied that a 60 percent approval vote certainly would be more impressive than a 51 percent vote.

Knight said the original casino plan for Sedgwick County might have to be modified for location in Marion County. For instance, the plan may call for less casino and more than the 300-room hotel planned because he noted there aren’t many motels in Marion County.

He said a Marion County resort might be modeled after the Foxwoods resort in Connecticut, which is in an isolated area but within easy travel from New York and Boston.

“We might need more land here than in Wichita,” he said, “because we might have to build more restaurants.”

A study might have to be made of highways and infrastructure, he said.

Knight said his group would never consider push to take land by eminent domain or ask for special breaks.

“This is private investment paying its own way,” he said.

Knight envisioned the development as a “family friendly” center designed for relaxation.

He criticized news coverage that said he hadn’t returned phone calls to commissioners, saying the commissioners should talk to him instead of relying on what they read in the press.

Thompson told the commissioners that the Iowa tribe of Indians, investors in Knight’s group, changed its proposal to the Kansas Legislature this month from seeking Indian ownership under the U.S. Department of the Interior to supporting a state-owned casino.

Thompson said that under the Kansas Constitution and federal law, such a casino can only be owned by the state or an Indian tribe.

With millions of dollars at stake, Thompson said it would place the state in the position of “the fox watching the hen house,” which is why most state legislators never will favor it.

Thompson said the legislators and the Indians both know that a Marion County referendum is not about putting a casino in Marion County, but to help apply political pressure to put a casino in Sedgwick County with its half-million people available to create the stream of needed casino revenue.

He said a 2004 study commissioned by Wichita Downtown Development Corp. estimated that 76 percent of casino revenue would come from gamblers living within a surrounding 50-mile radius.

Thompson said the casino projected with an annual revenue of about $200 million would be taking $150 million from gamblers living within this region.

He suggested this means Marion County could be helping pressure for a development that could pull millions of dollars away from it.

Thompson cited studies that show 30 percent of casino players have a gambling addiction problem with casinos taking 80 percent of their revenue from only 20 percent of their customers.

He said the WDDC report estimated the 50-mile-radius region could eventually have between 5,200 and 7,800 pathological gamblers with community costs between $71 and $106 million.

Thompson said he doubted that any money spent for the election would be in the best interest of Marion County taxpayers.

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