What can Marion County learn from Holton?

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Later this week, Marion County residents will be asked to offer judgment on the impact a destination casino would have here-in most cases, with little more than abstract evidence to draw upon.

But at least one Kansas community, situated in a similar rural context, can speak with the voice of experience.

Holton, a city of comparable size to Hillsboro and Marion, is the county seat of Jackson County, which has a population comparable to Marion County.

Since the late 1990s, Holton has become the hub between not one but three destination casinos, all within a half-hour’s drive.

Harrah’s Prairie Band Casino, which opened in January 1998 about 15 miles south Holton near Mayetta, is the only casino located in Jackson County.

The Sac & Fox Casino near Powhattan and the Golden Eagle Casino near Horton are both situated in Brown County, which lies immediately north of Jackson County.

Each of the casinos is owned by a different Native American group: Harrah’s belongs to the Prairie Band Potawatomie, the Sac & Fox is named for its owners, and the Golden Eagle is a development of the Kickapoo.

Holton is located about 35 miles north of Topeka on U.S. Highway 75 and about 60 miles west of Kansas City.

Last week, the Free Press interviewed leaders from six different spheres of influence within the Holton area: local government, banking, law enforcement, economic development, the faith community and the local newspaper.

Each person was asked about his or her sense of the economic and social impact of destination casinos on Holton and the surrounding area-from their unique perspectives, but also as residents who call Jackson County home.

At the end of each interview, we asked each leader to tell us how she or he would vote on a referendum question similar to Marion County’s if she or he were given the opportunity to do so.

* * *

The mayor

Janet Zwonitzer has lived in Holton since 1992. A few years later, she was elected to the city commission. In 1999, she was selected for the first time by her fellow city commissioners to serve as mayor, an office she held the next three years. Zwonitzer was selected to be mayor again in 2004 and has been serving in the role since then.

Like elected officials in most small towns, Zwonitzer is not a full-time politician. She owns and operates a downtown flower shop.

Zwonitzer doesn’t mince words about how she evaluates the impact of casinos on her town.

“It’s been my experience that the city of Holton itself really hasn’t benefited from having casinos in the area because (patrons are) going up and down the highway-they’re not really stopping in Holton, from what I can tell,” she said.

“I don’t see many people turning off into town to do any shopping,” Zwonitzer added. “There may be some…. I don’t think a selling point for a casino is that it necessarily boosts your local economy.”

The mayor said she doesn’t believe the casinos can be credited for the modest population increase Holton has enjoyed since the 1990 census, or that they’ve helped bring new businesses to town.

“Maybe some of our gas stations on the highway may (have started as a result of the casinos),” she said. “On the other hand, all the casinos in our area have built their own gas stations. Of course, restaurant-wise, they all have one and local people go up there to eat.”

The mayor said she believes local restaurants have been hurt by the competition.

“I can’t imagine they haven’t, because of the number of people who will say to me, ‘We went up to the casino and ate,'” she said. “Every night they offer a different special, so a lot of people plan their evening out there.”

Zwonitzer did say the lure of higher-paying casino jobs hasn’t necessarily hurt the local workforce in the long run.

“Personally, I know a lot of people who have worked there who have not wanted to sustain their jobs there,” she said. “They seem to grow tired of it.”

The mayor also noted that city and county governments don’t benefit from the money flowing into casinos because the revenue isn’t taxed-thanks to an agreement the state made with the tribes under former Gov. Joan Finney.

In fact, she added, Harrah’s is actually costing Kansas taxpayers because the state is spending $3 million to $4 million to build a ramp off of U.S. 75 at the exit for Harrah’s.

“We’ve had so many fatal accidents at 150th-which is (the road) Harrah’s Prairie Band is on-that the state is helping to pay for an off-ramp. Can you imagine? This is costing all of us.”

As for the social impact of the casinos, Zwonitzer offered anecdotal evidence.

“I am aware some families have broken because of gambling issues,” she said. “I know of some people who have gotten their gambling money illegally from places they’ve worked. And there’s been one spouse or the other who has drained bank accounts unbeknownst to the other.

“I wouldn’t say its a huge problem, but it has happened.”

VOTE: “If I had a choice, and could vote-which we were never given the opportunity to do here-I would vote no,” Zwonitzer said.

* * *

A bank officer

As senior vice president of Denison State Bank in Holton, Jim Chamberlain offered mostly positive appraisals of the economic impact of area casinos.

In addition to his job at the bank, which was involved in the loan process when Harrah’s was built, Chamberlain has in the past been active in the county’s economic development group and the tourism council.

“From my viewpoint, I think it’s been a plus,” Chamberlain said in reference to Harrah’s. “It’s added jobs to our economy.”

Chamberlain credits the casinos with helping to rank Jackson County among the top 10 counties in Kansas in terms of economic growth.

“I think a large part of that is we’ve had jobs growth,” he said. “Unemployment is low in our county. (The casino) has provided jobs-and pretty darn-good paying jobs for around here.

“It draws a million-plus people into our county. It was the No. 1 tourism attraction in Kansas until they opened the speedway (near Topeka).

“(The casino) brings a lot of people to town,” Chamberlain added. “I don’t know what kind of penetration we get as far as bringing them into Holton or any of our other small towns in our county, but we’ve worked on that some. I’m sure we get some flow-over from the people who come here.”

Chamberlain said “about every” storefront in Holton’s downtown business district is filled.

“There’s a lot of small towns you can’t say that about,” he said. “People coming through stop and eat and buy gas and other sundry items.”

Chamberland said he believes the casinos have brought more residents to the Jackson County, particularly toward the southern end.

“We’ve seen good growth-a lot of new construction,” he added. “From the banking end anyway, real estate’s been good in our county the past several years.

As for any negative effect casinos may have on the personal finances of residents, Chamberland said, “I’m sure it’s out there. There’s always going to be people who have problems, whether it’s gambling, eating, drinking…. But I don’t see it firsthand.”

VOTE: Chamberlain, a resident of the Holton area for more than 25 years, said he’d vote “yes” on the casino issue-but that’s not what he’d tell Marion County residents to do.

“I’m going to tell you (to vote) ‘no’ so you don’t get a casino and hurt our business,” he said with a laugh. “But I would vote yes.”

* * *

An eco-devo rep

A representative of the Jackson County Development Corp. agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her name not appear in print.

“From an economic development standpoint, I would have to take the stance that you have to disregard what your moral thoughts are on that issue,” she said.

“You just have to say yes-it would be an economic boon to your area. It’s going to boost travel and tourism and you’re going to gain economically from something like that.”

She added that even though the county receives no direct tax revenue for the operation, it does have a “trickle-down” tax benefit.

“I’m talking about increased revenue from the other sales tax-that has definitely seen an increase.”

She mentioned local restaurants and gasoline stations as benefitting from a casino.

“You’re going to see increased employment because obviously you’re going to have another source for employment in your county.”

As for population growth, the representative said, “Harrah’s employs a large number of people. Not all of them live in the county, but there is a percentage of people who do live in the county. So from that perspective, you’re going to see more housing, too.”

She did say local stores and business may not feel much of an impact from the busy highway traffic.

“The thing you have to say is that the local people are not the ones who are supporting the casino,” she said. “It’s going to be your transient businesses that are going to see the most support from that.”

She said she could not think of any businesses that closed because of the casinos or any “off the top of my head” that have opened because of it.

“(One) advantage you have with (a casino) is that it becomes a draw to your county, and you can think of ways that collaborate with that casino marketing to get (patrons) to come to the attractions that you already have in your county.”

As for the effect of casinos on local families, she said, “My personal feeling is that you’re probably going to see some negative impact in the fact that there are going to be people who aren’t going to be able to control they’re spending habits and things like that.

“I know we’ve seen that here. I don’t think it’s going to be an overwhelming proportion, or anything like that. I guess that might be part of the nature of the beast associated with that type of industry.”

VOTE: This person said she would definitely vote yes for a casino if she was given the chance.

* * *

Law enforcement

Jackson County Sheriff Charlie Connell was part of the Holton Police Department before his election to county office last fall. He said the most noticeable impact casinos have had on his department has been tied to the heavier traffic on U.S. 75, the main artery that extends north into the county from Topeka and Interstate 70.

An estimated 4,000 casino patrons travel that highway each day.

“We’ve got an increase in traffic, so we have an increase in traffic arrests and DUIs (driving under the influence),” the sheriff said. “Other than that, nothing you can tie into it.”

Sheriff Connell referred us to Chief Terry Scott of the Potawatomie Tribal Police. A long-time Topeka-area resident, Scott retired from a 26-year career with the Kansas Highway Patrol to take the job with the PTP.

Prior to the arrival of Harrah’s, the area Scott and his deputies now patrol was little more than a pasture sprinkled with a few rural residences.

“Obviously, the amount of crime involved in a residential rural area is going to be significantly different than it is when you bring in an industry that employees around 400 to 500 people,” he said.

“Then you bring in 4,000 visitors a day, obviously things are are going to change. How much of a change? It’s 100 percent.”

Scott said the presence of the casino has created relatively few problems for his department.

“It’s my experience that the crime that is at the casino is pretty much confined there,” he said. “It doesn’t leech out into the community.”

Scott said the problems are the sort that “you would just normally expect when you get large numbers of people confined in one area-and money is involved.”

“We have thefts, we have people taking other people’s money, but really the bulk of what we have are under-age gamblers,” he said.

“We have people who obviously want to take advantage of other people because that’s simply the way people are.”

But Scott emphasized that Harrah’s owners and operators do a good job of paroling their own operations.

“I’ve been involved with law enforcement for 40 years and the thing that has impressed me most is that the security at the casino is tremendous,” he said. “There are cameras everywhere.

“So the people who commit criminal acts there, well, they’re not real bright. We ought to be pouring chlorine in their gene pool. You can’t go anywhere except the bathroom where there’s not a camera looking at you.”

Scott said his experience is that casinos generally don’t turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals.

“We’re finding that the crooks we run into here, they’re not just crooks here,” he said. “They’re crooks wherever they are.”

VOTE: “I’m going to tell you two things,” Scott said. “No. 1, I have some problems with gambling-those are personal issues because of my religious background and because of some things that are fairly important to me fundamentally in my Christian life.

“I would never vote for gambling-I don’t care what it is or whether it’s Las Vegas or anyplace else. So I don’t think I can give you an answer that’s going to be representative of most of the folks in the community.

“I can simply tell you this-economically, from my personal perspective, gambling is pretty simple. For you to win money, somebody else has to lose. That’s a gambling issue, that’s not a casino issue.”

* * *

A pastor, counselor

In addition to his 36-year career in Christian ministry, including 30 years as a National Guard chaplain, Ron Todd holds a doctorate in senior-adult issues and is an addictions therapist through the Menninger Clinic in Topeka.

He has been pastor of the First Christian Church of Holton for two years.

“It’s a mix of both,” Todd said of a casino’s potential for positive and negative impact.

He said the effect on employment has been positive.

“All the farmers and local people, their kids have jobs in those casinos cooking food,” he said. “There’s lots of things (there) besides gambling. There’s cooking food, conventions, country-western stars, boxing-it’s very positive.”

The three casinos have expanded the dining options for area residents, too.

“When my wife and I go up and have lunch up at Sac & Fox-which is about 20 or less miles north of Holton-we see all of our farm friends, older folks especially.”

With that have come some disconcerting observations, too.

“One of the real bad things is that I’m seeing a lot of senior adults in all three casinos gamble their money away,” he said. “I’m really concerned about all the senior adults I see in the casinos.”

Regarding the other end of the age spectrum, Todd said the casinos do a good job of keeping minors out of their gambling establishments.

“That’s really an excellent thing I’m seeing,” he said.

Todd said he’s not aware of anyone in his congregation who is battling a gambling addition.

“But because addictions is my field, I’m seeing gambling addictions all over the place in the community,” he added.

“There are a lot of Christians in every church who are untreated alcoholics, adult children of alcoholics or untreated drug addicts who just cold-turkey quit and became Christians. They’re untreated, but their faith in Christ is keeping them clean and sober.

“These people are more at risk for gambling addictions.”

He said most people will not acknowledge a gambling addiction.

“(But) I’m seeing a lot of senior adults with a gambling addiction,” he added. “Most of them are smart enough to use (gambling) as entertainment, and take $50 or $100 along and then that’s it.”

Unlike most of his pastor-friends in the community, Todd said he and his wife frequent the casinos from time to time.

“I personally think Jesus would be there,” he said. “There’s a bar and grill in Holton. I go in and I have lunch there-and don’t drink any booze. But the bartender is on the edge of attending church.”

Overall, Todd calls the casinos “a mixed bag.”

“I think it will help the economy of your community, but it brings other stuff with it,” he said. “It’s probably like a lot of things in life-it has both positive and negative aspects.”

VOTE: “Fifty percent of me would vote yes and 50 percent would vote no,” Todd said.

* * *

A newspaper publisher

Connie Powls and husband David took over as publishers of the Holton Recorder in October 1997, about four months before Harrah’s opened.

She said Harrah’s casino has both pros and cons. On the positive side, she believes it has brought dollars into the local business community.

“They have helped the economy in ways you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “If you’re bringing them into your county, be sure that they’re doing a lot of things locally.”

As an example, Powls mentioned that flower shops have benefitted from orders for casino employees on birthdays and other occasions.

But she can site at least one negative example, too.

“I go to the beautician place and they say it’s really hurt their business,” Powls said. “I’m getting my haircut a couple of years after the casinos came, and they’re saying the older ladies don’t come in like they used to because they’re spending all their money at the casino.”

Powls said car dealerships seem to be benefitting from their proximity to the casinos, including one that relocated to the area from Topeka.

She also noted other business developments along Highway 75.

“The Super 8 is new and a pretty big (gasoline) station and Subway store is new. The highway has definitely changed its look, and that might be because of the casinos.

She said the local Chamber of Commerce has talked about developing a shuttle to the casinos to entice patrons to shop in Holton, but so far the idea hasn’t taken off.

“The Chamber tries to let people know there’s a great little town you can go shopping in,” she said. “You want to get some those dollars away from the casino.”

Powls said Harrah’s has had a mixed impact on her small business, too.

“As a newspaper, it was very helpful,” she said. “They did do local advertising. They used to go every week, and then every other week with a pretty big-sized ad. Now it’s like once a month.

“A lot of their advertising is television and radio. But it does help us.”

Powls said the arrival of the casino affected her ability to hold on to employees at first when the casino was offering hourly wages of $10 to $12.

“My typesetters-I lost them completely,” she said. “But then they started to come back. Their work schedules (at the casinos) are so fanatic. Every other week you have to work nights. They’re open 24-7, so they have to fill all those hours.

“They usually give people lots of hours,” she added. “It’s hard to get employees who show up (consistently), so the ones who do-they were really using them.”

Powls said she has seen a backlash because of those demands.

“The people who were part-timers, who needed just a little bit of money and had kids who were just starting school, they started to come back, wanting jobs around the town square.

“When you work at a place that’s open 24-7, you’re going to be working some hours that you’re not used to working-weekends, holidays, thing like that,” Powls said. “So then you have people who come back wanting jobs that are 8-to-5, Monday through Friday.”

Powls said she hasn’t observed significant population growth in Holton because of the casinos, but she believes the school district has benefited somewhat.

“They may not be stay-around people,” she said. “They may be people who are going to work real hard for a couple of years and then move on to the next casino or the next great job opportunity out there.”

As for increased criminal activity, Powls said, “I don’t think burglaries and other crimes have gone up because of it. (Casino staff) have pretty good control of their facilities.

“There’s always some people who say they have gambling problems, but I don’t see it personally.”

Powls said she and her husband rarely go to the casinos.

“If someone visits us, then that’s where they want to go,” she said. “We’ll go and eat because they have a nice restaurant.”

Some things they have observed there are disconcerting, she said.

“We’ll go and we’ll think, why are all these people here on a Wednesday night? You think, this has to be affecting something. All these people can’t be on vacation.”

Powls said it is apparent that some patrons come to the casino directly from work.

“Like a nurse-you could tell they came from work, and they would sit there all night long with a kind of glazed-over look,”
she said. “So there are people with problems.”

“That’s one thing we as a newspaper tried to stress when these places started opening up around here,” she said. “They’re fun, but remember the pros and cons and how you can get in a lot of trouble.”

VOTE: “It’s very tough, but when Dave and I came up, the issue had already been settled,” she said. “We’re still pro, but you have to tell people the obvious: you have to be careful, especially if it’s in your backyard.

“But if it’s going to be in your backyard anyway (in Harvey or Sedgwick counties), you might as well have it in your county if it’s going to be enough of an attraction to where it’s going to be pulling (people) away from your downtown.”

* * *

A postscript…

Beyond the willingness of most Holton leaders to talk about the impact of casinos on their town, two other things were universally true about these interviews.

One constant was an absence of hard data to measure or support the observations that were offered.

A check with the research department at Kansas State University revealed that no one, to the knowledge of staff, has ever done an economic-impact study of casinos on the Holton area.

The other thing all interviewees agreed upon was the positive way the Prairie Band Potawatomie have invested the significant revenue generated by their casino.

“I see people who have been for many years financially disadvantaged,” said Chief Terry Scott, himself a Native American (Cherokee). “I see people who have not had some of the niceties that mainstream America has had. (Casino revenue) has given them an opportunity to do that.

“The Prairie Band Potawatomie have done a magnificent job of utilizing the money wisely. They have added over 100 units of housing on the reservation, they’ve taken tremendous care of the elders and seniors here, they’re building a health clinic, they’ve built a boys and girls club.

“I can go on for quite some time about the things the (tribal) council has done regarding the utilization of the resources.

“I don’t believe the end justifies the means-again, that’s personal,” he said. “But if it did, this would be a good example of it.”

Regarding Marion County’s preliminary referendum, it is not clear who would own or develop a casino if one were to be located here. Two approaches-Native American ownership and state ownership-have surfaced.

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