Iowa's riverboat casino is sure bet to raise money

April 01, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

One minute before the sun rises today over the depressed Mississippi River town of Bettendorf, Iowa, gamblers will be invited onto the first legal riverboat casino in the United States.

The Diamond Lady, a new, $10 million paddle-wheeler, will ply the Big Muddy along the Iowa shoreline while up to 1,000 would-be Bart Mavericks pull slot machines, throw dice and play blackjack.

Down river a few hours later, the 3,000-person side-wheeler President will sail from Davenport.

Serious gamblers who flock to the riverboats may find the rules there painful to their wallets. Iowa will limit gamblers to $5 per wager and $200 per cruise, creating an overwhelming house advantage that means few players will ever go away winners.

"With these rules, the odds that you will double your bankroll at craps are 25 percent -- and that you will go broke before that are 75 percent," said I. Nelson Rose, a Whittier College criminal law professor and noted authority on commercial gaming.

Iowa officials hope riverboat gambling will revive towns such as Davenport, which lost six factories and 20,000 jobs in the 1980s, by bringing in gamblers from Chicago, Milwaukee and other Midwest cities.

But authorities in the gaming industry say that is a false hope, that having many local casinos is likely to damage retail merchants as area residents spend discretionary dollars on wagering.

The advent of riverboat gambling will make Iowa the state with the broadest range of gambling by introducing craps, blackjack, roulette and slot machines to a state that already offers a lottery, horse and dog racing, bingo and "Las Vegas nights" for charities.

With the launch of the floating casino, another taboo will have fallen -- another stigma of the past will have been turned into a vision of the future. Riverboat gambling has also been authorized in Illinois and -- perhaps surprising for a state that did not legalize sales of alcohol until 1966 -- Mississippi.

A bill has been introduced in the Pennsylvania House to allow riverboat gambling on the Delaware, Schuylkill and Ohio Rivers.

Every week, it seems there is a new twist in the juggernaut development of gambling in America. More and more, state and local governments, flayed by citizens who want additional services from fewer taxes, are turning to gambling to raise money.

Every state but two -- Utah and Hawaii -- offers at least one form of legitimized gambling. Lotteries, casinos, dog and horse racing, bingo, sports betting and charity "Las Vegas nights" are taking a growing share of national income.

"There is so much activity going on now -- I hear about a new place legalizing some form of gambling every two weeks or so -- that I can't keep track of it all," said William R.Eadington, a University of Nevada-Reno economics professor who studies gambling.

By 2000, many experts say, more than half the states will have casinos. As with Iowa's riverboat gambling, the trend is toward development of casinos that limit bets to about $5.

"People think of gambling as Nevada and, more recently, Atlantic City, but, depending on how you define a casino, as many as 14 states now have them," said Mr. Rose.

One house of the Indiana legislature has approved casinos for the former steel town of Gary and for two downstate tourist towns.

New Jersey's legislature is moving toward passage of bills to relax costly casino regulations and to allow sports betting in Atlantic City. Sports betting is legal in Nevada, Montana and through the Oregon lottery. Many casinos are operated by major corporations, which have transformed the image of casinos from vice to entertainment. But American Indian nations, which long have operated poker games, keno and high-stakes bingo in California, Florida and other states, now operate casinos in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Laws in 31 states allowing "Las Vegas nights" for charities create vast opportunities for the Indian-run casinos. And a 1988 federal law gives Indians the right to offer any games a state allows.

One of the more unusual alliances exists in Duluth, Minn. There, solely to allow the operation of a casino downtown, a former Sears store was certified as an Indian reservation belonging to the Fond du Lac Band of Minnesota Chippewa.

The Chippewa then entered an agreement with the City of Duluth to jointly operate a casino with slot machines and a variation of blackjack.

The casino draws 250,000 players each year, half of whom play bingo, says the Fond-du-Luth Gaming Commission. Last year, the casino netted nearly $100,000 per month in profits.

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