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Riverboat Casinos

The Main Saloon of the Mississippi Riverboat, J.M.White, c.1880

During the past two decades, casino gaming has grown to become an integral part of the tourism experience in several Midwestern states. As competition from new casinos and other forms of leisure activities increased, Midwest riverboat casinos began to expand, adding first-class hotels, top-notch restaurants and a bevy of amenities aimed at attracting a variety of visitors to their now full-service destination resorts. And, as with any service-oriented business, the need to update, upgrade and expand their facilities is a never-ending process.

The reemergence of riverboat casinos is no accident. During the late 1980s and early 1990s government leaders from several states came to realize what Nevada citizens have known all along: gaming is a good tax revenue business. Originally, riverboat gambling was the staple of large paddlewheelers and steamships cruising up and down the Mississippi River. At their height during the 1800s, such riverboats not only provided an elegant travel means, but plenty of entertainment by virtue of the shipboard gambling parlors. Fanciful ships plied the muddy waters as genteel passengers bet fortunes on games of chance. But after years of abuse by con artists and card cheaters who were also on board (and the nation as a whole rejecting gambling a legal activity), riverboat travel declined. Also, as other modes of transportation, such as trains and automobiles, became more efficient, riverboats fell out of favor with the upper-crust crowd. By the early 1900s gambling on riverboats had completely stopped, not to begin again until almost ninety years later.

With gambling back on board, riverboat activity is churning up the financial waters of communities all across the country. Today, there are over fifty-five riverboat companies in six states offering casino gaming facilities. Each employs an average of 800 people. It is estimated that this segment of the gaming industry alone generates $3.2 billion in revenues. But look for that number to increase significantly in the next few years as Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York consider legislation permitting gambling aboard their riverboats. Currently six states Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, and Missouri allow gaming parlors and casinos on riverboats. Most operate on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. Additional states may soon follow suit as well.

Once on board or underway, gamblers get down to the business at hand playing the table games and working the slot machines, looking for that lucky break. Most report they don't recognize any differences after becoming acquainted with the ship's layout and house rules. And to be sure, shipboard casinos rarely have a shortage of lavish surroundings, colorful lights, and most importantly, action.

Depending on the local laws and gaming regulations, so-called riverboat casinos might be no more than permanently moored floating barges. Other casino operations must depart for open water on scheduled runs before customers may begin gambling. Still other states have stipulated the actual design of the boat. For example, in Louisiana riverboats must duplicate the historic paddlewheelers in order to qualify as legal gaming facilities. Betting limits, maximum loss, and payoff amounts may also vary. Often, too, services and amenities, such as floorshows and full-service restaurants, may be on land with the casino portion of the facility technically on water.

Casino gambling in the United States outside of Las Vegas or Atlantic City used to be limited to cruise ships. Traditionally, the casino could not open until the ship was three miles offshore in international waters. (This limit was set in the last century as the maximum distance that shore-based cannons could fire.) For those that lived far away from the traditional casinos, gambling became a favored shipboard activity until riverboat gambling casinos and those run by Native Americans dared to claim their version of the American dream.

Iowa's racetrack casinos are off and running with their live racing programs. Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Altoona, Iowa's only horse-racing facility, added 300 slot machines to its gaming floor during a recent $26 million expansion. Future plans include an enhanced entertainment venue and new meeting and banquet facilities.

Bluffs Run Casino, a greyhound racing track with 1,500 slot machines, is one of three gaming facilities in Council Bluffs. Last year Harrah's Entertainment Inc. purchased both Bluffs Run and the nearby Harvey's Casino. The new owner changed the name of the riverboat complex to Harrah's Council Bluffs Casino & Hotel and upgraded both properties with signature Harrah's appointments, eateries and amenities.

Ameristar Casino Hotel Council Bluffs has undergone a property-wide remodeling and expansion. Making the casino fresh are the addition of the Prairie Mill Cafe and Bakery, the $1.2 million renovation of the Amerisports Bar & Cabaret in the Main Street Pavilion and The Star Arena, an outdoor music/entertainment venue on the bank of the Missouri River adjacent to the Ameristar II riverboat casino.

Catfishbend Casino, the only riverboat casino in the country to have two home ports (Burlington during the spring and summer and Fort Madison in the fall and winter), has taken on a new look. From bow to stern, the riverboat casino now sports a Mardi Gras theme and decor, complete with the new 300-seat Bourbon Street Buffet.

A Biloxi-based gaming company went on a buying spree in the Hawkeye State, purchasing the Lady Luck Casinos in Bettendorf and Marquette and the President Riverboat Casino in Davenport. The former two riverboat facilities were decorated with the lively signature colors of the company and renamed Isle of Capri, while the aging President was replaced by the new Rhythm City Casino.

Louisiana was the fourth state to approve riverboat casino gambling and its 1991 gambling law allows a maximum of 15 boats statewide. In 1992 a provision was added for one land-based casino in New Orleans. The state also has three land-based Indian casinos and four gaming machines-only casinos located at pari-mutuel facilities. Additionally, video poker is permitted at Louisiana truck stops, OTB's and bars/taverns in 31 of the state's 64 parishes (counties). All riverboat casinos in Louisiana are required to remain dockside and all are open 24 hours.

The Baton Rouge casinos consist of the Belle of Baton Rouge, Casino Rouge and Evangeline Downs. The Lake Charles casinos include: Isle of Capri, L' auberge du Lac and Delta Downs. New Orleans area casinos are: Bally's, Boomtown, Harrah's (landbased) and Treasure Chest. The Shreveport/Bossier city casinos include: Sam's Town, Edlorado, Boomtown, DiamondJacks (formerly Isle of Capri), Horseshoe and Harrah's Louisiana Downs.

Riverboat gambling in Missouri, legalized in 1992, has changed a great deal since then. Riverboats no longer must leave dock and patrons can "board" or "disembark" as they want. Missouri has a "$500 loss limit" law. Gamblers can buy tokens up to $500 value beginning at 8am and can only purchase more tokens each at 2 hour interval. For instance one cold purchase $500 worth of tokens at 9:30, another $500 at 10, but then would have to wait until 12 to purchase any more tokens. Additionally one must be at least 21 to gamble in Missouri.

When riverboat gambling returned to the Mississippi River in 1991, supporters spoke fondly of quaint excursions that would transport patrons back into Mark Twain's world, providing a "family, Disney-like experience," as one riverboat operator put it during a legislative hearing. More than a decade later, however, the reality of these watercraft of chance bears little resemblance to those early visions, most notably because only one of the 30 boats on the river still cruises on a regular basis.

Many of the floating palaces of fortune that cling to the Mississippi's banks like mussels in the five states where they are legal still look like the elegant steamboats that plied the river in Twain's time. The resemblance ends at the waterline, however, as many have no engines, and those that do rarely, if ever, fire them up and weigh anchor. Others - the so-called "boats on moats" - don't look anything like floating wedges of wedding cake, a description applied to the paddle-wheel steamboats of old. These "vessels" are large barges designed to float in pools adjacent to the river with casinos on their decks.

While not yet on a Vegas scale, many of the most successful riverboats are a far cry from the modest boats that set sail in 1991, boasting fancy restaurants and entertainment in addition to their gambling floors. But they don't look like rooms where Brett Maverick would feel at home, either. While poker tables and other table games exist, the vast majority of their floor space is taken up by jangling, buzzing and beeping slot machines.

Critics of the boats find the atmosphere depressing. "This isn't Vegas-style gaming where you at least have the illusion of grandeur," says Kevin Horrigan, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page columnist who has written critically about the riverboats. "This is just people in smoky rooms pulling handles."

But the boats' owners say the naysayers are letting their prejudices cloud their vision. "It's fun, it's reasonably priced - our average customer spends less than $50 - they get good food and maybe a show. They just relax," said Bernard Goldstein, chairman and CEO of Isle of Capri Casinos of Biloxi, Miss., which operates 12 casinos, most of them riverboats.

The lone gambling boat still plying the big river is the Mississippi Belle II in Clinton, Iowa, which sails from 1 to 3 p.m. each weekday during the cruising season from mid-May through mid-October. "As far as I know everyone else has gone dockside," said Ken Bonnet, president of the company that runs the boat. "We are in the process of evaluating the feasibility of building a new facility. If that's economically feasible, we may get away from cruising as well."

Bonnet said his boat's situation is unique among Mississippi operators because it receives busloads of gambling tourists from the western suburbs of Chicago and elsewhere through a contract with a tour operator. "They are the ones who like to cruise," he said of the tourists. "Most of the people who live closer to the water have no interest in it."

Riverboat operators say it became clear almost as soon as the first gambling cruise left the dock that their demise was in the cards. "When it got started, the gambling was supposed to be penny ante and it was the cruising experience that was the thing," said Goldstein, the casino executive. "But the bettors didn't like cruising. When they wanted to get on, they wanted to get on, and when they wanted to get off, they wanted to get off."

Goldstein said that point was driven home when his company put two licensed riverboats on Lake Charles in Louisiana to take full advantage of a now-repealed provision of the state law requiring gambling vessels to cruise for two hours for every two hours they were open at the dock. "When the one boat came back and the other was getting ready to leave, you'd see a big rush down the dock from the departing boat to get on the other one," he said.

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