816 North

Northland communities continue cashing in on casino revenue

The exterior of the Argosy Casino in Riverside can be seen sparkling at dusk.
The exterior of the Argosy Casino in Riverside can be seen sparkling at dusk. File photo

If you don’t think about gaming when you visit city hall or the splash park, when you hear a fire truck’s siren wail past or when parking at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, maybe you should.

Roughly 6.3 million gamblers placed their bets last year in the Northland, generating nearly $30 million in tax revenue for local communities — a pool of money that has funded a steady stream of new police cars, streetlights, sewer systems, miles of roads and other infrastructure improvements.

It’s also led to a renewed winning spirit for development in the Northland.

Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose said they believe the city made a good bet on the casino 23 years ago.

The Northland’s ongoing rebirth, particularly in Riverside and North Kansas City, is made possible in large part by the consistent gaming tax revenue pumped into “home dock” budgets during the last two decades.

“Ninety percent of our transformation has been because of our casino,” Rose said.

This Missouri Gaming Commission oversees 13 casinos — the maximum permitted under state law — with three that call the Northland home.

Harrah’s North Kansas City, which is located west of Chouteau Trafficway south of Missouri 210, and the Argosy Casino, located south of the Interstate 635 and Missouri 69 intersection in Riverside, both opened in 1994.

Ameristar Kansas City, which opened as Station Casino in 1997, sits east of Interstate 435 along Missouri 210.

Missouri casinos have generated billions in revenue for the state since the legalized gaming oases first opened in 1994, according to the 2016 Missouri State Gaming Commission report. That includes $5.8 billion for Missouri schools and another $863 million that went to funds supporting veterans causes, educational initiatives or assisted compulsive gamblers.

But the local impact has been almost as profound.

Many in the gaming industry point the development gains in Northland communities that welcomed casinos as proof legalized gambling has fulfilled a promise to bring positive change to those cities.

And it’s not strictly gains from gambling.

The Missouri State Gaming Commission’s estimate of 6.3 million casino visitors in 2016 at the three Northland casinos doesn’t include visitors who only came to sprawling complexes of hotels, spas, restaurants, movie theaters, and other entertainment venues.

At Ameristar alone, the total number of visitors to the casino floor was 2.6 million, but an additional 2 million people are estimated to have visited the non-casino amenities, which basically means the entire population of metropolitan Kansas City visited that lone casino — twice.

The “Riverboats,” which were installed more than two decades ago along the banks of the Missouri River, are actually barges surrounded by moats in order to satisfy the original legislative (and nostalgic) requirements that conjured them into existence during the early 1990s.

Each casino pays a $2 fee to the state for every admission, but an individual could trigger more than one “admission” depending on how long he stays or re-entry rules.

Half of that fee goes directly to the “home dock” city — Riverside, North Kansas City and Kansas City, Mo., in the Northland — and local communities also receive a portion of each casino’s gross income tax along with sales and property taxes.

In the case of Harrah’s, North Kansas City also gets monies for rent, but perhaps no city has benefited more than Riverside as a result of the revenue generated by Argosy.

“Twenty-three years ago, without the money from the casino, we were dying on the vine,” Rose said. “We needed to figure out how we were going to pay for the services people wanted and it was really difficult.”

City leaders agreed in 1994 to set aside the majority of the incoming gaming dollars for capital improvement projects. Today, gaming revenues account for approximately 30 percent of Riverside’s annual revenue.

Visitors to Riverside now are greeted by a clock tower, fountain, and plaza that was paid for with gaming monies. It’s also funded a multitude of new amenities and infrastructure projects, including a new city hall and public safety center, improvements at the community center, and several new or renovated bridges.

A new levy opened up a sizable development area for businesses.

The city provides trash collection, ambulance service, transit service and community center memberships free of charge to city residents in addition to thousands of dollars that annually are earmarked for community service organizations like Synergy, Platte Senior Services and Northland Health Care.

“It’s has so many impacts,” Rose said. “We’ve been able to spur development, and create job and impact citizens lives. Being able to be good citizens means the world to me.”

The city of approximately 3,500 residents paid half of the $90 million levy project that helped transform the local economy, which boasts a 6.6-percent overall sales tax amidst a building boom.

“From the very beginning, that board says if we bring this into our town, we’re going to do great things with it and that’s been the plan ever since,” Rose said.

Over in North Kansas City,

Gaming revenue also provides key infrastructure support in North Kansas City, funding renovations at the library and fire station as well as enough cash to install air conditioning at North Kansas City High School.

Just as with Riverside, revenue from Harrah’s provides roughly 30 percent of the city’s total annual revenue.

North Kansas City Chief of Police Steven Beamer grew up in town and has worked for the city for 39 years. He’s seen the transformation gaming revenue has made in North Kansas City, which was founded in 1912 as a hub for industry.

“I’ve seen the entire spectrum of the city,” Beamer said. “It was industrial city. With the changing world economy, North Kansas City was suffering from loss of industry and the loss of revenue that went with it. When Harrah’s came to North Kansas City and the revenue started coming in to the gaming fund, it helped the city reinvent itself.”

The police station doubled in size thanks to an addition paid for with gambling revenue, which also funded a new splash pad to replace an out-dated wading pool at Dagg Park among other citywide upgrades.

North Kansas City also has been able to fun critical infrastructure improvements for debt-free, such as the long-anticipated Armour Road Redevelopment along the I-35 corridor.

The city has used gaming money to purchase 59 acres, including a large out-of-commission grain elevator, and clear the land for redevelopment, paying for the sewers and roads to tie the project — dubbed the “One North” district by Rick Warner at National Realty Advisors — together.

The new development will feature restaurants, a hotel and conference center, 225 apartments, retail and restaurant space, a grocery store and a medical office building — all be less than a mile from the Harrah’s that helped make it possible.

The new Meierotto Jewelers headquarters and showroom, which is slated to open in November, is already taking shape.

Changes in the Missouri gaming industry since its inception have helped the state’s casinos flourish, according to Executive Vice President of Government Relations and Public Affairs for Pinnacle Entertainment Troy Stremming.

Pinnacle owns Ameristar and Stremming started working at the former Station Casino when it opened 20 years ago.

“There’s been a lot of changes over the years,” he said. “Gaming here is now very similar to any other jurisdiction. It allows us to be much more competitive with neighboring jurisdictions. There are not a lot of strange regulations that people aren’t comfortable with.”

Each year, Ameristar pumps about $13 million into the Kansas City, Mo., civic budget. It’s only about 2 percent of the city’s budget, but it’s been an important component for numerous infrastructure projects, including upgrades to street lights and the parking garage at the Kauffman Center.

Ameristar also has made voluntary contributions to the city, including $2 million toward the ASB Bridge Underpass in 2006.

“What I am most proud of, as someone who has been a part of the industry in Missouri since 1997, is that the industry has done what it said it would do,” Stremming said.

That mission included creating destination casinos in the Northland with booming attendant development, while also being good corporate citizens. Ameristar prides itself on supporting causes that feed the hungry, provide senior services, fund cancer research, support veterans and address problem gambling.

“I think as a new industry in 1994, there were a lot of concerns about the negatives,” Stremming said, “but I think over time, we’ve proved the opposite. We’ve proven we have given jobs and had a long-term economic impact in the community.”

The Pinnacle Foundation is a more nimble charitable entity, which provided money to purchase a new vehicle for the Don Bosco Senior Center Meals on Wheels the same day their old van was stolen.

“The foundation allows us the ability to get the money quickly to help,” Stremming said. “We had our (general manager) actually go get the vehicle and drive it up and actually had it replaced the same day it was stolen.”