Casino plan near Branson considered risky business

Residents want to retain wholesome image

An artist's rendering of the Rockaway Beach, Mo., waterfront shows gambling casinos and restaurants. A vote to approve gambling in the area is set for Aug. 3.

? The town of Branson’s main industry is wholesome, family entertainment. Think Andy Williams and The Osmonds.

But the ringing of slot machines, the rattle of dice and the snap of a well-shuffled deck of cards threatens to drown that out, and it’s setting up a fight between the gambling industry and theater owners in the Ozarks.

Business owners and entertainers worry the proposed construction of a casino near Branson would destroy the town’s image and chase away loyal customers.

But 12 miles up the road, in Rockaway Beach, folks say the image of casinos as havens for mobsters and retirees plunking their savings into slot machines is outdated. Gambling would bring year-round jobs to their economically depressed town, they say.

At one time, Rockaway Beach was the area’s plum destination, drawing throngs of anglers and vacationers to its riverfront. Things reversed in the 1990s, when Branson boomed with theaters, shopping malls, restaurants and hotels.

Family-oriented fare

The highway into Rockaway Beach, Mo., is mostly free of the tourist traffic that flowed through it 50 years ago. The town is trying to revitalize the tourist trade by bringing in floating gambling casinos.

Branson estimates its city of 7,500 residents swells annually between April and December with 7 million tourists who come to hear crooners such as Williams. It’s a favorite of church groups, families and retirees. Veterans are saluted at nearly every theater.

“One of the reasons we have been vocal in our opposition is a concern that the image of Branson — the brand if you would, if you use marketing terms — is one in which these words are all in place: wholesome, family-oriented, good entertainment,” said Peter Herschend, whose family owns Silver Dollar City and other Branson-area attractions.

Rockaway Beach’s 575 residents remain undaunted. They have survived legislative and legal challenges.

“We’ve come through a lot of obstacles,” said Rockaway Beach businessman Chuck Walters, who has helped lead the gambling effort. “We’ve been able to knock those barriers or obstacles down, and that’s David talking to Goliath.”

Voters’ choice

Still, it is voters statewide who will decide whether gambling should spread.

The state constitution only allows casinos along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Missouri now has 11 casinos. The constitutional amendment on the Aug. 3 ballot would allow one more to be built on the White River.

Southwest Casino and Hotel Corp., the Minneapolis-based company selected as the preferred developer, promises to bring 1,000 jobs that will pay $9 an hour and include insurance.

That’s why Walters and fellow businessman Denny Howard say they want a casino.

“From the very start, our only concern has been getting year-round jobs with good pay and good benefits,” said Walters, who owns Rockaway Beach Marina.

Economic statistics support their concerns. Taney County, where both communities are located, had 3.4 percent unemployment in October, well below the state’s 5 percent rate. But it climbed to 19.1 percent in January, when the theaters in Branson close until spring.

City leaders in neighboring Walnut Shade, Merriam Woods and Ozark support a casino.

The gambling industry targets economically depressed areas, said Tom Grey of National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. The challenge is to get residents to realize the revival comes with the social costs, he said.

“Show me a place that’s gambled itself rich,” Grey said.