MULVANE — After five years of wrangling, bidding, annexing and zoning, casino gambling opened to the public in Sumner County this morning.
It didn’t take long to gauge the gambling fervor in the area. About 200 people lined up outside the Kansas Star Casino before its doors opened at 8 a.m., and the crowd swelled steadily throughout the morning.
The casino reported that 1,050 people had entered within the first 45 minutes, 1,600 within the first 90 minutes and 2,415 within a little more than two hours. Three hours after the opening, a waiting line stretched outside the main entrance for about 100 yards, with a wait time of about 30 minutes. Arriving vehicles were backed up nearly to the new toll booths on the west side of Mulvane’s Turnpike exit. By 4 p.m., 7,000 people had visited the Kansas Star, reported Scott Cooper, its general manager.
Cooper, who has opened casinos in Nevada, Missouri, Illinois, New York and elsewhere, said he was surprised at the large number of people who visited the Kansas Star within its first couple of hours.
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“We expected this to be a busy day, but we didn’t expect it to be this busy this early,” Cooper said.
The wait outside was necessary to keep the crowd inside at what Cooper called “functional capacity,” so people would have enough room to enjoy themselves, he said. As people left the casino, new groups of visitors were admitted.
The crowd was “not anywhere near fire capacity,” of 4,695 people, he added.
Some people saw the line, turned around and left. Joe Matthews, 69, of Wichita, was one of them.
“It will be here for a while,” Matthews said.
Still, he sounded pleased about one thing.
“I’m kind of glad to see one this close to Wichita,” he said. “Didn’t think I’d live long enough to see that.”
Inside the casino, more than 1,300 slot machines gobbled cash noisily, gaming tables were jammed, and long lines formed to sign up with the casino’s Lucky Star Player’s Club.
Visitors to the casino, built and managed by Peninsula Gaming of Dubuque, Iowa, for the state, which owns the games and will collect 22 percent of the gambling revenue, seemed eager for a new way to spend their money after Christmas.
Jack and Trudy Brown of Bel Aire usually hit the casinos in Newkirk, Okla., on the weekends.
“We decided we’d donate to Kansas, instead,” said Jack Brown, who was seated at a “Quick Strike” slot machine at the rear of the casino. “If I’m gong to lose, I’d rather it go to my state.”
The Browns won $1,300 during the casino’s demonstration for state regulators 10 days ago.
“I probably put $500 back in, but we won two or three hundred. Typical casino stuff,” Brown said. “I plan on losing. If I win, it’s a bonus.”
Most who entered the Kansas Star for the first time sought information about how to sign up for the players club and where to get cash. ATM machines were busy. Once in a while, jackpot winners were announced over a PA system.
Some visitors stopped after entering the 60,000-square-foot building, which will become an entertainment and equestrian arena next year when the Kansas Star’s permanent casino opens, to take it all in.
“It’s impressive when I first pulled into the parking lot and walked in the front door,” said Jim Everett of Winfield. “But I haven’t spent any money yet.”
Jeanne Thompson of Valley Center, who arrived about an hour after the opening, couldn’t find room at the tables, her favorite casino activity. And her favorite slots were taken. So she ate a turkey, bacon and Swiss cheese sandwich at Panini Joe’s, one of three food venues inside the casino.
“It seems pretty nice,” she said. “It’s nice to have one. I wish it was further north where I live.”
Thompson, who also has gambled in Colorado and Oklahoma, said she didn’t know how often she’d visit the Kansas Star.
“Depends on my luck,” she said. “If the machines pay out, yeah, I’ll be glad to come back.”
Diane Greenough of Abilene found it crowded inside. But the staff was “extremely friendly and looked like they were having fun,” she said.
Greenough said she played a few slots “just to say I did it.”
But another woman, from Derby, who didn’t want to give her name, said it was too smoky and crowded for her to enjoy the experience.
“My eyes are watering and I have a terrible headache,” she said.
Walter Strader made the drive from near Ponca City, where he said he has six casinos to choose from within about a 20-minute drive. He came to the Kansas Star, he said, “just to see what it was like.”
The Kansas Star’s permanent casino, expected to be 70 percent larger than the interim facility, will include 2,000 slots and 50 tables. A 150-room hotel will be added in that phase. The final phase, to be completed in early 2014, will expand the hotel to 300 rooms, add rental venues and RV parking, and include the opening of a 24-acre, 100,000-square-foot equestrian center with 600 stalls.
The casino projects 2 million visitors in its first year, and just under 3 million annually. Peninsula Gaming’s ultimate investment is expected to grow to $314 million, well above the $225 million required by state law.
The interim Kansas Star will be open 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. until it hires about 60 more employees, mostly in gaming, so that it can remain open around the clock, Cooper said. About 60 of 80 dealer candidates graduated from its first dealer’s school, and the casino will start another dealer’s school next week, he said.
People may apply for the school at the casino or online at kansasstarcasino.com, Cooper said.
Contributing: Tim Potter of The Eagle