CC by-nc-sa 2.0 Justin in SD
Issues, SEK

If I Were a Betting Man

On the 24th, news came out of Cherokee County of another group interested in petitioning the state for the construction of a casino in southeastern Kansas. They join two other projects also underway that are making similar proposals for Crawford County. This is interesting, because in the end, only one project can proceed – not all three. Kansas is divided into four “gaming zones,” and each zone can only have one casino that is under the leadership (in various weird and bureaucratic ways) of the Kansas Lottery Commission. The SEK gaming zone is the last one without a  casino operating in it.

This is, mostly, good news for SEK. While I myself am not much of a gambler, I’m a big fan of the dining establishments that frequently accompany them, not to mention the concerts. I’m also a supporter of letting people game with their money if that’s what they feel the need to do. And with Amazon leaving Montgomery County, having a casino built in the area will give a huge boost to the job and tax pool in the entire area. Lord knows we can use all the revenue flow we can get these days. So, a whole lot of upside to this process.

With that said, what is the best plan? There are three options on the table now:

  1. Crawford County, north of Pittsburg at the old dog track facility
  2. Crawford County, south of Pittsburg, at the northwest part of the 69/400 junction
  3. Cherokee County, south of between 400 and I-44

To put it simply, the first option is the only one that really makes sense to me. Here’s how I see it. The Cherokee plans are mostly for the benefit of the location just off I-44, with the idea that they can siphon off people that would otherwise be hopping the border into Oklahoma, and pull from locations north and east (Pittsburg and Joplin). To be blunt, I think they are overly optimistic on the number of people that they’ll pull in from Missouri or Oklahoma. On top of that, the surrounding population of the county is relatively low, and could represent a challenge for workforce demands. Obviously locations like Downstream have successfully overcome that issue, but as such, I think the pool of available talent will be shallow, and they’ll have to count on pulling people away from established casinos. Of course, challenge being that the existing casinos can likely stonewall a lot of that with their wallets long enough to really hurt a lone location in SEK.

Keep in mind, the NEO area currently benefits from several surrounding areas with much more population than an area like Cherokee can tap into. That includes cities like Bentonville and Fayetteville in Arkansas where people hop the border from. Those folks are all very unlikely to come further up north into Kansas. Concerns over competition have been raised before over that spot. Why would someone drive past all the casinos in Oklahoma on the way to one in Kansas? Easy, they wouldn’t. That casino would have to survive on its draw from Pittsburg and Joplin. And even then, Downstream’s facilities are really nice. One mistake at the Cherokee location and people drive five extra minutes to go there instead. I think that’s picking a fight that the opposition already has a head start on. Any casino in that location would have to be bigger and better than Downstream to keep people from going there (these locations are literally about a stone’s throw from each other). Bigger and better also means expensive – right now it looks like $130+ million. I just don’t like the math here given the value of the region it’s going into.

So that leaves Crawford County. I think either option there is better than Cherokee, though south of Pittsburg would not be my choice. Crawford has stronger population growth, better infrastructure, and a casino would benefit from the higher surrounding standard of living as well as potential partnerships they could make with PSU. I do like the location at that junction, and if it weren’t for the existence of the Camptown facilities, I’d say that’s a no brainer. On top of it, it’s much farther removed from the competition posed in NEO. A Camptown casino could also be up and running significantly faster than one in Cherokee or south of Pittsburg, as well (of course, it’s arguable if speed is a valuable vector in this equation). Not to mention that separation could allow it to be smaller and more manageable since it could be a facility that’s designed to meet the area’s needs, rather than one that has to fight the 500 pound gorilla that is Downstream.

But that’s the real reality. The Camptown track was closed by 1996, and has sat ever since. Every few years someone goes in to do work, and it stops. It sits. It’s an eyesore. The state has a chance to fix that issue, which either needs to happen, or the owners need to cut their losses and raze the buildings. Not to mention okaying a casino anywhere else is an axe to the neck for pretty much anything else at the Camptown site because of the costs currently associated with developing anything there. Developing that location has all the benefits of new construction south of Pittsburg, with the added advantage of finally turning value out of that property. A more northerly location takes it more out of the sphere of influence of the NEO casinos, and provides a draw from areas north on 69 like Fort Scott and beyond. You also have the cities over the MO border like Nevada, and I think a Pittsburg location would still be appealing to the Joplin community. Downstream would obviously be closer, but Pittsburg is still a very manageable drive, especially if the facility was worth the trip. Not to mention the large number of people that already commute between the two locations for any number of reasons.

Oh, and one other really important piece of information to factor in. Phil Ruffin Jr. is one half of the plan behind developing the Camptown location (he also currently owns the site). The other half? The Quapaw tribe. Yeah, the people that own Downstream. That means the fancy facility they just built in 2008 wouldn’t be competition for the Pittsburg location, it’d be a partner. It’s even possible that they could, with the proper incentives, run an SEK location at a loss if necessary, using it as a stepping stone to get people down south (e.g. “We see you lose a lot of money in Pittsburg. That’s awesome! Here’s $50 and a free buffet coupon to come lose money in Oklahoma!”). Either way, a plan that turns the most significant competition in the region into an ally is a plan worth considering long and hard.

That’s my two cents. Camptown. Fix that location, and profit. What do you think? Share your comments down below!

(Photo Credit: CC by-nc-sa 2.0 Justin in SD)

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