A new round of casino bidding has stirred old passions in Sumner County.
Two communities long at the center of the contentious dispute over where a state-owned resort should go are ready for battle once again.
In Wellington, people are abuzz over a new proposal for Turnpike Exit 19. That community was forced to sit on the sidelines last year, when the only proposal offered to the state during a second round of bidding was for Mulvane's Turnpike Exit 33. That plan eventually fizzled.
Residents signed more than 300 postcards in less than 24 hours in support of Global Gaming's proposal for Exit 19 last week, said Shelley Hansel-Williams, executive director of the Wellington Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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"Before, it was me rounding up the troops. Now the troops are coming to me," she said. "They're like, 'We've got to get on this.' They're ready."
The county needs the casino because it has lost population and jobs, particularly in Wellington, the county seat, where businesses have closed recently, she said.
"I think all of us are excited again that we're back in the game."
Most casino developers who have been interested in Sumner County have focused on Mulvane's turnpike exit, about 14 miles north of Wellington's, for its proximity to Wichita's population base.
By now, Mulvane citizens are fairly sophisticated about the casino process, said Mulvane's city administrator, Kent Hixson.
"They've seen a lot of proposals, so it's a little bit old hat," Hixson said. "But that doesn't mean you're not supportive of developers who come along."
Mulvane residents have seen so many proposals that a group of casino supporters who used to wear T-shirts touting a particular casino have donned the more generic "Casinos R' Us, Exit 33" T-shirts, which they wore to Tuesday's county commission endorsement hearing.
Their passion for a casino hasn't diminished. Mulvane casino supporters sent more 200 cards to the commissioners before the hearing asking for endorsements of Peninsula Gaming's proposal.
The cards didn't help. Commissioners endorsed only the Global Gaming plan for Wellington.
Patsy Allen, a Mulvane resident who helped lead a pro-Harrah's Entertainment petition drive in the first round, said, "We are still very active in getting the casino for Exit 33 because we think it's the better location for the state of Kansas to generate revenue."
Watching two proposals for the Mulvane exit reach the final stage of the process in the first two rounds and then disappear has been discouraging, Allen said.
"But on the other hand, we're very hopeful because we still have a shot at it," she said.
Mulvane has bids from first-round winner Harrah's and from Peninsula Gaming Partners of Dubuque, Iowa.
Global Gaming, of Ada, Okla., has offered the lone proposal for Wellington.
The Kansas Lottery must negotiate contracts with all qualified developers by Oct. 20. Harrah's will need an endorsement from Mulvane's City Council before that. Peninsula already has received the city's endorsement.
Any signed contracts will be sent to the state's casino review board for its consideration and a final vote.
Casino boosters in Wellington and Mulvane are rallying around central arguments they believe should sway the board's vote in their favor.
Among Wellington backers' arguments: A centrally located casino offers better opportunity for jobs and economic growth for the entire county. Exit 19 has no infrastructure issues, and utilities are in place for the project. And there is no opposition from nearby residents, unlike at Exit 33.
"Nothing's changed from two years ago in our opinion," said Wellington's city manager, Gus Collins. "It is the best site for Sumner County."
Wellington's mayor and eight council members signed letters in support of Global Gaming's proposal, and the city has approved zoning for the casino, Collins said.
"We think we have the best product, and an excellent applicant — very strong financially and experience wise."
Among Mulvane supporters' points: Exit 33 is closer to Wichita. Consultants hired by the state's review board have said through the first two rounds that a Mulvane casino would draw more visitors and dollars than Wellington's exit. Water drainage and traffic issues have been exaggerated by opponents and can be easily resolved by developers. Most proposals in the three rounds of bidding have been for Mulvane's exit from better-known companies like Harrah's and MGM Mirage.
"We're pleased that a Harrah's and a Peninsula both seem like quality groups," Hixson said. "They emphasize they have the money and don't have to go to private investors to get money."
Harrah's, which withdrew its proposal for Mulvane's exit after winning state approval in the first round, is back with a planned $260 million project for the Mulvane exit and an alternate site to the east.
Peninsula is offering a $300 million plan for the exit.
Allen praised Peninsula's provision for a $100 credit for school supplies for all K-12 students in the county, and $1,000 for all graduating high school seniors for post-secondary studies.
She was upset that the county commissioners didn't endorse the plan.
"It don't take a rocket scientist to realize they just turned away a lot of revenue for Sumner County," she said.
Wellington boosters are excited that Global Gaming is a company with experience along the I-35 corridor in Oklahoma, where it already operates five entertainment facilities.
Global has offered a proposal that calls for a total $255 million investment over three phases at Exit 19, including a $3 million update of Wellington's golf course, and an oval asphalt race track in the second phase.
"This Global Gaming plan makes so much sense," Hansel-Williams said. "People are like, yeah, this is the plan. This is what we've been looking for."