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Past bidders looking at Sumner Co. casino again

Familiar names are resurfacing as potential bidders for a Sumner County casino.

Little more than a week after Chisholm Creek Casino Resort developers killed their project near Mulvane, seven companies have expressed interest, said Janice Hellard, Sumner County's director of economic development.

They are focusing on the turnpike exits at Mulvane and Wellington and a third location Hellard wouldn't identify.

She wouldn't say who has expressed interest. But people connected with three former bids say they are considering it.

Former Marvel Gaming boss Roger Wagner heard about Chisholm Creek abandoning the county while at his winter home in Florida. He started making calls on his cell phone to look into another try for Wellington.

Bob Knight, the former Wichita mayor who was once part of a Mulvane bid with MGM Mirage, is forming a new team.

Equity Ventures, a Topeka development company that recruited Harrah's Entertainment for the first round of bids and tried again as a hotel developer with Chisholm Creek in the last round, is wondering if the third time might be the charm.

The Kansas Lottery is expected to ask its commissioners to open a third round of bids at its meeting Friday.

"There's kind of an excitement about the process starting over," Hellard said. "With the economy picking up, people are looking more favorably to the future."

Rep. Vince Wetta, the Wellington Democrat who was instrumental in getting the county included in the state's expanded gambling law, said he thinks the county will get some strong proposals for a true destination resort if there is a third round.

"It' s going to happen. I just hope we get it right this time," Wetta said.

Wetta said the improving economy is part of the reason for his optimism. Lessons learned from the previous two rounds also factor in.

"We were kind of like babes in the woods the first time around. Even the state," he said. "But we've been through this long enough now that everybody knows the lay of the land and what's gotta be done."

Past bids

Casino developers have been eyeing Sumner County since 2007, when a new gambling bill was passed by the Legislature.

That December, the county received four bids in the $300 million to $500 million range. Three were considered by the state's casino review board. Harrah's, which made the largest bid, won but withdrew in November 2008, citing the crumbling economy.

A second round of bidding started a month later and resulted in three considerably lower bids. That number dwindled to one as companies dropped out and combined forces. The round ended last week when the sole remaining bidder, Chisholm Creek, backed out.

Wagner and members of the family of casino legend Jack Binion proposed the $368 million Trailhead resort for Wellington in Round 1. It finished second to the Harrahs' project for Mulvane.

Wagner, the former head of Horseshoe Gaming Holding Corp. said the Binions aren't interested anymore, so he needs to find a new source of money.

But he's researching the prospects for another resort for Wellington, a location he's believed in from the start. He could get a strong team together quickly if he decides to pursue another project, he said.

Friends in Wellington have been calling him about coming back, Wagner said.

"It's heartening to know we did create a lot of goodwill when we were there," he said. "That's part of the reason we have an interest in coming back."

Knight is looking into a Mulvane project again with a team whose members he wouldn't identify. They have to determine whether a casino project makes economic sense, he said.

"We think there's a market. We have some real reservations about there being a $225 million market now," he said.

"If it looks feasible and potentially profitable, we're going to be able to assemble a strong response."

Knight was part of the original Chisholm Creek venture in a partnership with MGM Mirage and Foxwoods Development. That group proposed a $425 million resort for the Mulvane exit in Round 1, but withdrew late in negotiations with the Kansas Lottery.

Waiting on lawmakers

The Chisholm Creek group that evolved in Round 2 pulled out after it became skittish about potential competition from a tribal casino proposed for Park City, and legislation pending in the Kansas Senate that might give Wichita Greyhound Park another chance for slot machines. It also claimed to be confused over zoning issues at its Mulvane site.

Chisholm Creek left one day after Gov. Mark Parkinson denied its request for what would have been the fourth delay in the process.

Knight and Wagner are both waiting to see what will happen in Topeka when lawmakers return April 28. A bill is pending in the Senate that would give Kansas racetrack owners a larger share of slots revenue.

It excluded the Wichita track, where a re-vote of Sedgwick County residents would be required to install slots after a previous vote narrowly failed. But Chisholm Creek's attorney predicted an attempt would be made to get the Wichita track back in the bill when lawmakers reconvene.

Phil Ruffin, who owns the Wichita track, said he won't try to make that happen. Busy running the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, he is ambivalent about gambling in Kansas.

"It would take another vote to allow it, and the no vote is still out there," Ruffin said. "I'm not going to push it this time."

If other people push the legislation through, he said, he would listen to ideas about re-opening the track.

Ruffin has a lobbyist working in Topeka who couldn't be reached for comment.

Competition

Knight and Wagner also said the prospect of a casino in Park City proposed by the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma has changed the financial landscape for a Sumner County casino.

They said the tribal casino would pose some problems for a state-owned facility that requires a $225 million minimum investment.

But Wagner thinks a Sumner County casino could still be profitable.

"If you find the right contract with the state, and have insulation from any major commercial competition, it's good opportunity," he said.

Equity Ventures, the Topeka development company that built Boot Hill Casino & Resort in Dodge City, which is managed by Butler National Service Corp., is thinking about another Mulvane attempt. After Harrah's pulled out in Round 1, the company worked with a pair of former Mandalay Bay Resort executives before they left, then agreed to build a hotel for the Chisholm Creek casino.

"We are seriously discussing it internally," said Nancy Seitz, spokeswoman for Equity Ventures. "We kind of feel like we should because we funded the lawsuit to get the annexation in place and we have a lot invested. But we have to make smart decisions."

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