When it was all farmland, Jim Ross could go out in his backyard at night to be swallowed by a pitch black sky and bask in country living.
His nights are now illuminated by the Kansas Star Casino, and its 120-foot-tall pylon sign flashing electronic graphics over the Kansas Turnpike.
The main casino lights are low-profile and aren’t distracting, he said.
“I kind of wish the sign was just a little smaller than that, but overall I think they did a pretty decent job setting it up,” Ross said.
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Still, the casino, which opened this week just across the turnpike from Ross’ house on Broken Arrow Road near 140th Street South, has altered the landscape for residents in housing additions on both sides.
Some hate it and plan to move. Others take a wait-and-see attitude. Some are fans.
But for all, rural life as they knew it is gone.
“That part I think I’m going to miss,” Ross said.
One of Ross’ neighbors, Robert Bruington, is a member of the casino’s player’s club, and some of his family members who live nearby are thinking of applying for jobs there.
Although the pylon sign looms over his neighborhood, Bruington said, “It doesn’t bother me. I like to look at it. Something different.”
Another neighbor, Marc Klein, a 10-year resident of the neighborhood, said he isn’t bothered much by the changed landscape.
“I think so far what they’ve got up is pretty nice,” he said. “It’s not a bad-looking sign. It doesn’t bother me too much.”
Klein does worry about property values. “For Sale” signs adorn the neighborhood; residents say the homes aren’t selling because of their proximity to the casino.
But Klein’s main concern is how the surrounding area will develop.
“The casino, I can deal with that,” Klein said. “But what else is going to pop up here? We’re really not in the country anymore.”
On the other side of the Kansas Star, Graham and Charla Hamilton and their five children live in a housing addition just a few blocks west of Highway 81. They have long opposed the casino and their fears are coming true, Charla Hamilton said. Traffic has increased on the highway, and the intersection with K-53 is unsafe, she said.
Also, a new roundabout at the casino’s turnpike exit on the west side creates confusion for traffic, she said.
“Anybody that’s drinking, it will be extremely easy to get on the turnpike the wrong way, there’s so many exits off there,” she said.
She and her family have discussed taking alternate routes to and from home, not opening their door to strangers, and making sure the house is locked at night, she said.
They plan to put the house up for sale eventually.
“It’s just not a place where I want to raise children,” Hamilton said.
Her family once lived in Las Vegas, and they still have relatives in the Vegas area who live farther away from a casino than they do in Kansas.
“They think it’s crazy that we’re having to deal with this here,” Hamilton said.
But another former Las Vegas resident, Ira Dietrich, 96, who also lives near Highway 81, said it is nice to have the casino just across the road. He worked in construction in Las Vegas for seven years, he said, and learned that casino customers aren’t a problem for nearby communities.
“You’re never bothered. They’re going there to try to make some money. All the time we lived out there, we never did see a disturbance,” Dietrich said.
Sheriff to track crime
Still, it’s a comfort for Hamilton that the new Sumner County sheriff, Darren Chambers, is a neighbor in her housing addition. Chambers took over as sheriff in August after the previous sheriff, Gerald Gilkey, became the Kansas Star’s security director.
Chambers said his department will track crime in the area to determine whether more deputies are needed. He already has sent more deputies to patrol the area.
Chambers has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years.
“You don’t want it in your backyard,” he said of the casino, “but at the same time voters said they wanted it in the county, so we’ll work with it.”
Chambers said he has talked to the Ford County sheriff about the Boot Hill casino in Dodge City, which opened two years ago, and learned it doesn’t create a lot of problems there.
“Time will tell,” he said. “We will track all the numbers, see if there’s an influx of traffic, burglaries, cars broken into, and we’ll respond where it’s needed.”
Richard Dietrich, Ira’s son and a retired telephone company employee, lives directly across from the casino on Highway 81. He moved there 30 years ago to raise a family in the country, and hoped the state would award a casino to Wellington instead of Mulvane.
His biggest concern is traffic from the highway that pulls into his driveway at night to turn around. He’d like to see some of the entrances to the addition blocked off.
He said he is concerned about crime. But he doesn’t expect much pedestrian traffic through the neighborhood.
“People will just come out here to leave their money and go home,” he said.
“I have nothing against casinos,” Dietrich said. “I wish we didn’t have one right here. They may be OK. It’s just wait and see.”
Good with the bad
Ross, who works at Hawker Beechcraft, said he is disappointed that the casino didn’t reach out to its new neighbors. Residents were hoping it would offer to resurface the roads in the area, for example.
“It would’ve looked more respectful to the casino itself to have a clean neighborhood with happy neighbors around it,” Ross said.
Ross has his house, which he built 11 years ago, up for sale, but not because of the casino. He was thinking of moving with his 5-year-old son to Wichita.
Now he’s close to pulling it off the market because he is excited that restaurants, gas stations and other amenities could come to the area, providing more conveniences while preserving a country atmosphere.
“I think I’m just going to stay and enjoy the environment out here and see what happens,” he said.