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Dodge City betting on casino

The storied icon of the old Wild West, now a quiet family town, is looking to boost its economy by reviving a piece of its past.

August 05, 2007|John Hanna | The Associated Press

DODGE CITY, KAN. — A faro table and dice tumbler on display behind glass at the Long Branch Saloon are authentic Wild West artifacts.

But the big wooden wheel of fortune, painted red, white and blue, is a replica, just like the Front Street buildings and saloon, where the wheel sits, waiting to be spun by tour guides or lent out for charity casino nights.

Dodge City's past -- and the past people think they know from watching the "Gunsmoke" television series -- draws thousands of tourists each year. That history helped civic and business leaders as they successfully lobbied legislators this year to allow a casino in Ford County as a way to boost the economy.

One company has picked a site, visible from the Boot Hill Museum on Front Street.

"That was our start, and now it's our future," Thomas Dorrell, a tour guide at the museum, said after giving the wheel a spin.

But is Dodge City, which has been family friendly for decades after a wild beginning, ready for a casino and all its trappings?

Although supporters bet that a casino will attract tourists -- and state government is betting on new revenue -- there are skeptics. A report last year by a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor suggested that a casino would hurt the local economy more than it would help.

Wild times in the 1870s and early 1880s led to a backlash among Dodge City residents, resulting in a more sedate community. These days, some worry that gambling will create crime and other social problems in this southwest Kansas community of 26,000.

"I don't think wild is good," said Wesley Underwood, a retired businessman who echoes concerns about gambling addictions, broken families and cash-strapped gamblers who might turn to crime.

The new law also permits casinos in the Kansas City and Wichita areas and in the state's southeast corner.

The Kansas Lottery will own the ventures, and the state hopes eventually to reap $200 million a year in revenue. The lottery will hire managers to run the casinos, and so far, Boot Hill Gaming Inc. is the only developer to express interest in Dodge City.

Its interest is not surprising. The Boot Hill Museum incorporated the company in 2003, and the firm's board includes the County Commission's chairman and three bankers.

Their preferred site is 64 acres south of the Santa Fe railroad tracks, up against the Arkansas River. The law requires the developer to invest at least $50 million in a casino and hotel complex, and the board would like to tie it into a $35-million publicly funded convention center.

"A casino would diversify our agribusiness economy," said Kim Goodnight, County Commission chairman. "We ride the highs and lows of agriculture."

Casino backers also expect more tourism. Boot Hill attracts 70,000 visitors a year, but that's less than the 90,000 it attracted in the days when "Gunsmoke" reruns aired more widely.

"I think we need a shot in the arm to get our tourism back," said Charlie Meade, who gives downtown walking tours dressed as a Western marshal, with a black cowboy hat and an 1881 Colt .45 on his hip.

In late June, Ford County voters authorized a casino, with 64% of them in favor of the idea. But Boot Hill and potential competitors still must submit applications to the state, and a review board might not decide which one gets the contract until late February.

There are other obstacles, such as Dodge City's relatively small airport and the distance of nearly 100 miles to the nearest interstate, I-70.

William Thompson, a UNLV professor of public administration who has studied the gambling industry for a quarter of a century, was pessimistic. Thompson, who produced a study for Kansas in 2006, said he thought that a Dodge City casino could generate $80 million a year in revenue but would pull tens of millions of dollars out of the local economy.

Boot Hill officials say their casino would generate $57 million to $60 million a year in revenue and employ 670 people. Legislators were less optimistic, projecting revenue of less than $28 million.

Boot Hill wants to offer limited dining and no more than 100 hotel rooms in its complex so it won't compete with local businesses.

But Thompson said that approach would be a mistake if Dodge City wanted to attract conventions that bring hundreds of visitors.

If developers want tourists to sustain a casino, he said, they generally need 2,000 hotel rooms for every $100 million in annual revenue they hope to generate. If Boot Hill followed both his projections and his rule, the new hotel would have 1,100 to 1,200 rooms.

Thompson also said Dodge City could not count on drawing tourists from Denver, because of competing casinos in Black Hawk and Central City, Colo., or from Kansas City, because of gambling there.

"If they would have done this in 1955, when the alternative was Las Vegas, it might have meant something," Thompson said.

"Right now, I see it as a major negative because you won't be able to draw in the gamblers."

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