Brandon Steven’s vision for a new casino in southeast Kansas looked like Las Vegas.
In 2015, Steven and his brother Rodney led a group of 18 Wichita-area investors in a proposal to build the fourth and final casino in Kansas, called Castle Rock.
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The drawing for the four-star casino hotel, designed by a Las Vegas architect, showed it rising 20 stories, with a metallic sheet reflecting the endless flat Kansas horizon. The other two casino proposals were much smaller, rising only a few stories, looking more like large shopping mall districts than major casino destinations.
Everything about the Castle Rock proposal was twice as large as the others: It was estimated it would earn revenue of around $90 million per year on twice the number of slot machines and twice the number of tables, whereas the other bids were estimated to earn roughly half that amount. Castle Rock would include 65,000 square feet, and the other two half that. It would employ more than 800 workers, and the other proposals fewer than half as many. And it would cost $140 million to build, the other two roughly half that.
And as the Stevens emphasized in the group’s pitch, the casino would be such a big deal that it would attract tourists from Missouri, Arkansas and even across the casino-heavy Oklahoma state line. That would bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue for the local government and the ailing state coffers in Topeka, the bid said.
The other two proposals were for casinos near the population center of Pittsburg, about 30 miles from the Oklahoma state line. But Castle Rock would squeeze into the corner where Kansas meets Oklahoma and Missouri and lure tourists from afar, according to the proposal.
“I remember when I was trying to sell 20 cars a month; now we sell close to 2,000 cars a month,” Brandon Steven said in a promotional pitch for the casino, talking about his car business in Wichita. “But it’s one customer at a time. We will definitely underpromise and overdeliver.”
But an independent review board looked over the proposal and decided the opposite: that the casino had overpromised and would underdeliver. The board voted 5-2 that southeast Kansas wasn’t ready for Las Vegas and selected Kansas Crossing Casino over Castle Rock.
Crossing, the winning bid, was the smallest of the three proposals. It pitched itself as more of a local casino concept, which the board decided had a greater chance of success. The project was led by a team of Topeka investors who had already built casinos in Dodge City and Mulvane.
Wichita billionaire Phil Ruffin, who also made a bid, conceded defeat and moved on. But the Steven brothers joined with Cherokee County, which stood to lose upward of $10 million a year in tax revenue, in a lawsuit to stop Kansas Crossing.
The lawsuit, according to the Castle Rock group, was straightforward: All of the consultants had agreed that Castle Rock casino would be the biggest draw. And the board was legally obligated to choose the “contract (that) best maximizes revenue, encourages tourism and otherwise serves the interests of the people of Kansas.”
“The Lottery Review Board received this evidence and ignored it, selecting the contract which offers lower gross revenue, fewer tourists, lower tax revenue, fewer amenities and fewer jobs,” stated the Castle Rock court complaint.
But one of the consultants brought up concerns that the casino might not be able to earn enough money to pay back its loans. Although all three bids overestimated how much money they would make, Castle Rock’s bid was off by about twice as much as the other two bids, according to consultants who reviewed the proposals for the state.
One board member didn’t think the Vegas ambition was a good fit for southeast Kansas. The design of the winning bid, Kansas Crossing Casino, “is more with Kansas Midwest environment of somewhat modern,” said Gail Radke, one board member. She added that “Castle Rock was a little bit more contemporary for that rural area.”
The Kansas Crossing Casino buildings are nearing completion, but it still advertises an unspecified March opening date on its Facebook page, and the license to operate the casino is still in limbo pending a decision on the lawsuit in the state Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, the casino battle took a new turn: Brandon Steven told The Wichita Eagle that he was aware of a federal inquiry that involves “looking into poker, my involvement in Castle Rock Casino.”