DODGE CITY, Kan.
A faro table and dice tumbler on display behind glass at the Long Branch Saloon are authentic Wild West artifacts.
But the big, wooden wheel of fortune painted red, white and blue is a replica, just like the Front Street buildings and saloon where the wheel sits, waiting to be spun by tour guides or loaned out for charity casino nights.
Dodge City’s past — and the past people think they know from watching television’s “Gunsmoke” — draws thousands of tourists each year. That history helped civic and business leaders as they successfully lobbied legislators this year to allow a casino in Ford County as a way to boost the economy.
One company has picked a site, visible from the Boot Hill Museum and its Front Street.
“That was our start, and now it’s our future,” said Thomas Dorrell, a tour guide at the museum, after giving the wheel a spin.
But is Dodge City, family friendly for decades after a wild beginning, ready for a casino and all its trappings?
Although supporters bet a casino will attract tourists — and state government is betting on new revenue — there are skeptics. A report last year by a University of Nevada at Las Vegas professor suggested that a casino would hurt the local economy more than it would help.
Wild times in the 1870s and early 1880s led to a backlash among Dodge City residents and a more sedate community. These days, at least a few worry about gambling’s creating crime and other social problems in this southwestern Kansas community of 26,000, which they’ve always considered a good place to raise families.
“I don’t think wild is good,” said Wesley Underwood, a retired businessman who echoes concerns about addictions, broken families and cash-strapped gamblers who might turn to crime.
The new law also permits casinos in the Kansas City and Wichita areas and the state’s southeastern corner.
The Kansas Lottery will own the ventures, and the state hopes eventually to reap $200 million a year in revenue. The lottery will hire managers to run the casinos; so far, Boot Hill Gaming Inc. is the only developer to express interest in Dodge City.
Its interest is not surprising. The Boot Hill Museum incorporated the company in 2003, and the firm’s board includes the county commission’s chairman and three bankers.
Their preferred site is 64 acres south of the Santa Fe railroad tracks, up against the Arkansas River. The law requires the developer to invest at least $50 million in a casino and hotel complex, and the board would like to tie it into a publicly funded $35 million convention center.
“A casino would diversify our agribusiness economy,” said Kim Goodnight, the county commission chairman. “We ride the highs and lows of agriculture.”