First gamblers test their luck at Dodge City casino

DODGE CITY — Michael Blue, of Houston was one of the first to reach a slot machine.

He slipped a $20 bill into the 25-cent "Double Diamond" machine, pushed the button, watched the reels spin ... and lost.

The state of Kansas had just earned 22 percent of perhaps the first quarter bet in the first state-owned casino to open in the United States.

Blue, who had waited an hour and a half to get into the Boot Hill Casino and Resort before it opened on Tuesday, kept pushing the button and kept losing.

"I thought with the new casino, they might keep them kind of loose to make people get that taste in their mouth and keep them coming back," he said.

Still, Blue, who is working in the area as a seismologist in search of oil, liked the place.

"It's nice, especially brand new. I think it's going to bring a lot of business to Dodge," he said.

Blue was doing his best to help. He went through the $20 bill in three minutes.

As plans for three other state-owned casinos, including one in Sumner County, struggle to get out of red tape and become reality, the Boot Hill facility greeted a stampede of gamblers when its doors opened at 1 p.m.

Guards counted 183 people in the first 10 minutes. Within the hour, the 20,500-square-foot gambling floor was crowded.

The first group to enter the casino was greeted with applause by the staff and state gaming officials.

Standing among them, Jeff Thorpe, president of Boot Hill Gaming Inc., remembered how his group had worked to get a casino for Dodge City since 1999.

They began talking about it in the Long Branch Saloon, thinking about maybe having a few poker tables and a few slot machines, he said.

They wound up with a $90 million Las Vegas-style casino in a town that hadn't experienced legal casino gambling for more than a century.

"Mission accomplished," Thorpe said. "This project will re-ignite the rush of the Old West. They'll feel it when they walk in the front door."

Maybe even before they walk in. A portion of the casino's brick facade resembles storefronts in ol' Dodge. The silhouette of a cowboy, six-shooter drawn and smoking, looms over the entrance.

The western theme continues inside with a montage of old cowboy photos over the entryway, wagon-wheel chandeliers slung from the ceiling, cowboy cutouts lining the walls, and security guards dressed in western jeans, white button shirts and sheriff's badges.

Matt Dillon was not about to bust the joint. The only lawmen visible were security guards hired by the casino.

Keith Kocher, director of gaming facilities for the Kansas Lottery, which will own the casino, looked around and said, "It really is happening. It's quite exciting."

Consultants hired by the state have projected the casino will earn between $47 million and $60 million in gambling revenue in 2012 and 2013.

"It's a great day," said Clark Stewart, president and CEO of Olathe-based Butler National Corp., which will manage the casino. "We're proud to be a part of economic development in western Kansas. That's the big item today."

The casino, in its $48 million first phase, opened with the musical jingling of 584 slot machines with names like "Crown of Egypt," "Wild Safari" and "Jaws".

Classic rock played over the sound system. Flickering images from more than 30 flat-screen TVs mounted around the interior added to the entertainment.

People dined in the Firesides at Boot Hill restaurant, ate in a snack bar, filtered into a saloon and prowled a gift shop.

A second phase, scheduled to be completed in February, 2012, will add a 124-room hotel, indoor pool, salon and spa facility, conference and entertainment facility, and more gaming and dining space.

Although the casino opened Tuesday, the official ribbon cutting featuring Gov. Mark Parkinson and other officials, is today. The casino will be closed this morning until the 11 a.m. cermony.

The casino opened with 265 employees, mostly from Dodge City and Garden City, said Mike Tamburelli, the general manager.

Among them was Sarah Abel, 26, of Dodge City. She earned a fashion merchandise and design degree from Johnson County Community College, lived in Dallas for awhile and had no intention of applying for a job at the casino until a friend called.

"It's the last place I thought I'd be working," she said.

She applied to be a food and beverage administrative assistant, but ended up as executive administrative assistant to the general manager.

"I haven't looked back since," she said.

Abel wasn't the only one happily surprised to be at the casino.

Joe Braley, an 85-year-old retired postal worker from Dodge City, waited 2 1/2 hours for the doors to open and was holding his own against the slots, gambling for relaxation. He said he has been to Las Vegas and wagered at casinos in Oklahoma, Kansas City and around Topeka.

"I'm glad Dodge finally got one. I can stay at home for awhile," he said. "Knowing Dodge like I know, I never dreamed it could happen."

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