Mark Twain would scarcely recognize Missouri’s modern-day riverboat casinos.
They are more like buildings than vessels, connected to land by power cables, plumbing lines and data circuits. They never leave the dock; one doesn’t even have engines. Many of them aren’t directly on the Missouri or the Mississippi itself, but in shallow ponds filled with piped-in river water.
The boats exist by virtue of certain fictions created by law or regulation since Missouri approved gambling on the water in 1992.
But now Missouri’s highest court appears to have dealt a losing hand to these landlocked “boats in moats.”
The Missouri Supreme Court turned to the dictionary for a definition of “on” the river and ruled in December that “boats in moats” are not what the voters had in mind in 1994 when they amended the state constitution to allow games of chance on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
The seven justices ruled unanimously that casinos must be “solely over and in contact with the surface” of the rivers. Areas where boats float can be man-made but must be “contiguous to the surface stream.”
According to the state Gaming Commission, just three of the 16 operations comprising Missouri’s $652-million riverboat gambling industry are clearly on the main river channel. The agency will hold hearings later this year on whether the other boats meet the Supreme Court standard.
The operators of Missouri’s riverboats, which have 12,000 employees and paid $190 million in state and local taxes in 1996 alone, have said it’s business as usual while they fight to keep their licenses. But they warned that it would cost millions to move their vessels to the river.
“If the court rules for the plaintiffs, it will have a severe impact,” said Larry Pearson, publisher of Passenger Vessel News, a trade publication based in Metairie, La. “We’re talking about the loss of thousands of jobs.”
A few days after the Supreme Court’s decision, in fact, a judge refused to order the Gaming Commission to take final steps toward licensing an expansion of an existing casino boat on the Missouri River at St. Joseph. The boat operator, St. Joe Riverboat Partners, has run a casino on the main river channel since 1994 but wants to move to a larger boat in a basin nearby.
Owner Bill Grace argued that he has “played by all the rules” and had a $17-million investment on the line. He says he is facing financial ruin.
Missouri’s riverboats are more evocative of Las Vegas than of “Life on the Mississippi,” and look little like the big paddle-wheelers that Twain wrote about. (In fact, Hannibal, the Mississippi River town Twain made famous, has repeatedly voted down riverboat casinos.)
Harrah’s Flamingo boat in Kansas City has decorative smokestacks radiant with miles of neon and adorned with pink flamingos.
The President Casino in the shadow of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is situated on the Admiral, a onetime floating ballroom that shimmers with a metallic Art Deco appearance.
At Maryland Heights, the Player’s Island Casino has four boats topped by a neon-wrapped dome visible from busy Interstate 70 heading to St. Louis.
Over the years, the Legislature changed the law to allow boats to float in basins filled with river water situated no more than 1,000 feet from the main channel. Lawmakers acted under heavy lobbying from boat operators, who wanted to avoid river cruises, citing safety concerns such as heavy river traffic, low railroad bridges and swift currents.
As a result, the Gaming Commission allows two-hour “cruises” in which the gangplanks are lifted but the boat goes nowhere. Passengers are free to step off the boats if they run out of chips, but they can’t come back on board.
The moats are just deep enough to slosh river water around the hull. At the Flamingo, the water actually has to be pumped uphill to fill the basin.
“This was a scam from the start. There is no cruising like they promised, and it’s a ridiculous setup,” said state Rep. Todd Akin of St. Louis, who brought the anti-gambling lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court.
The president pro tem of the Missouri Senate, Bill McKenna, chuckled about his first visit to Casino Aztar, docked on the Mississippi at Caruthersville. He was running late and wasn’t allowed to board minutes after the “cruise” began. “So I went to the dockside bar and had a beer and looked at the boat that was, as they said, ‘cruising,’ and I had to laugh,” McKenna said. “I was with some folks from another state who said it was absurd.”
If riverboat operators are sweating about the future, gamblers say they don’t understand the controversy. “If they’re going to allow gambling, it shouldn’t matter where it is,” said Tom Sproull of suburban Chicago, who traveled to the Player’s Island Casino, target of the lawsuit by gambling opponents. “They’ve got to restrict it to a boat. That ought to be enough.”
George Robinson of St. Louis said he felt a little sorry for the riverboats, even though they sometimes take his money. State officials have “already given their blessing,” he said. “It’d be kind of a shame to have all of this and take it all away.”