For The Northland's Smaller Communities, Casinos Have Been An Economic Boon

Aug 13, 2015

In 1992, Missouri voters legalized riverboat casinos along the state's waterways. The promise was that tax revenue would soar for local communities and state education coffers would be filled. 

And for Kansas City's smaller Northland communities of Riverside and North Kansas City, that's largely been the case. Both cities have grown to depend on revenue from their casinos, though there have been some costs that come along with legalized gambling.

Transforming the Northland

At around 1 p.m. on a Wednesday at the Argosy Casino, dozens of gamblers are already filling the floor, ready to test their luck on the slots, roulette wheels and table games.

Every bet that gets made means more money for Riverside. Tom Teesdale is the Argosy's VP of marketing. He says the community wouldn't be the same without the casino.

Last year, the Argosy contributed $6 million to the city of Riverside. That was 25 percent of their budget.
Credit Cody Newill / KCUR

"It's been a transformational project for Riverside," Teesdale says. "We've been able to support the city's effort to build infrastructure, the shops at Briar Cliff. There are a lot of great stories that we've seen as a result of the Argosy being here."

And few in Riverside would disagree with him. Certainly not Donna Oliver, finance officer for the city.

"No matter what you're looking for, if you're a Riverside resident, you've benefited [from the casino] in some way," Oliver says. "All you have to do is drive around Riverside and see all the great and tremendous improvements that have been made over the last 10 years."

Riverside certainly wouldn't be able to operate the way it does without revenue from the Argosy. For the 2015 fiscal year, gaming revenue made up 25 percent of Riverside's total revenue. It has allowed the city to build a levee and the Horizons commercial park. 

And though those were both multi-million dollar projects, Oliver says the city has tried to be careful to not grow too dependent on casino cash flow.

"Riverside has always tried to use a portion of gaming revenue for non-recurring expenditures," Oliver says. "[That way], suddenly if you don't have that money, you're not having to slash your entire police force or whatever."

"It cost us money by having money."

In North Kansas City it's much the same story. The small community only has about 4,300 residents, but it took in more than $13 million in revenue from Harrah's North Kansas City for the 2015 fiscal year. That's more than 30 percent of the city's total funds. 

North Kansas City got 30 percent of their budget from Harrah's last year, which was $13.1 million.
Credit Cody Newill / KCUR

Mark Conarroe served on the North Kansas City Council from 2012 to 2014 and he says that revenue from Harrah's has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the quality of life in the city. The city provides free fiber internet service to residents and free vacuum leaf pickup in the fall. 

But Conarroe says having so much casino revenue has nearly backfired in the past.

"It cost us money by having money," Conarroe says. "They built a community center that's 90,000 square feet that was never able to operate in the black."

The city eventually turned to the YMCA to take over operations for the community center.

Other upsides, and the downsides

Besides tax revenue, the Northland casinos also have a big hand in supporting charitable programs. The Argosy provides about $40,000 a year to Miles of Smiles, a free dental care program for children in Clay and Platte counties. 

Christy May is the program's executive director. She says the Argosy's support has helped treat 3,000 children each year.

"We spend about $60,000 on supplies, you know, just toothbrushes and toothpaste and filling material," May says. "So they're making a significant dent in what it costs us just to provide materials for the children."

But the casinos also have an undeniably negative impact when it comes to gambling addiction. Debra Neal is a counselor who practices in Overland Park, Kansas. She says addicted gamblers are much like drug users or alcoholics, but their drug of choice is money. 

"A problem gambler can spend as much as $500,000 depending on what kind of access they have to money," Neal says. "It's not uncommon for people to have $50,000, $70,000 or $100,000 in [gambling] debt when they come into my office."

Keith Spare counseled problem gamblers for decades, and he currently is part of Port KC's Problem Gambling Advisory Committee. 

He says problem gamblers are simply brushed off by the casinos, the public and the state.

"We haven't taken care of those who are hurt, and we hide them just like the homeless on the streets," Spare says. "And we're not making any roads to go the other way."

North Kansas City and Riverside officials acknowledge the concern about problem gambling, but didn't believe that it was a major problem for their cities.

The Missouri Council on Problem Gambling Concerns estimates that there are around 91,000 problem gamblers statewide, and Spare says there isn't enough funding to help those with severe gambling addictions.

A sliver of casino admissions tax dollars pay for the state's Compulsive Gambler's Fund, which the Missouri Department of Mental Health expects will only be about $255,000 next year. 

"That's a pittance," Spare says. "No matter what you do with the casino or gambling rules, increase the safety net. The safety net that we have in Missouri is very small."

The Missouri Gaming Association formed the 1-888-BETSOFF hotline, which helps get problem gamblers in touch with Gambler's Anonymous meetings and counseling. There is also a voluntary exclusion list run through the Missouri Gaming Commission that problem gamblers can sign up for that bans them from entering casino floors.

The casinos also voluntarily display information on the hotline in their advertisements and in the casinos themselves. Tom Teesdale says the Argosy takes responsible gambling seriously.

"I would want everyone who comes to the Argosy to do so responsibly," Teesdale says. "This is a place where folks can stay and we want to ensure that everyone does that in a responsible way."

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.