Kent City Council discusses expansion of casino gambling
By STEVE HUNTER
Kent Reporter Courts, government reporter
March 12, 2013 · 3:13 PM
Kent City Councilman Les Thomas decided to throw his cards on the table to see whether fellow council members and residents want to remove the city's ban on casinos as a way to boost tax revenue.
The Great American Casino operates in the Panther Lake area under an ordinance with a grandfather clause that allowed the business to stay open after Kent annexed the area in 2010. That ordinance maintained the ban on casinos in other parts of the city. Now city leaders are looking at whether to open up all of the city, except residential areas, to casinos.
"The city of Kent is losing a tremendous opportunity to increase revenue to the city without having to raise taxes," Thomas said at a March 5 council workshop. "Gaming revenue is going to other cities from Kent residents who go elsewhere to enjoy gaming. Why not in Kent?"
The other council members gave mixed reviews to removing the casino ban but agreed to discuss the issue further at another workshop in a month or so.
Kent received $338,000 in tax revenue from the Great American Casino in 2011 and another $335,000 in 2012, said John Hodgson, city chief administrative officer. The city taxes the casino, which offers poker and other card games, at 11 percent of gross receipts.
"The city already allows gambling," Thomas said. "Nearly every grocery store and convenience store sell lottery tickets. The Golden Steer and other restaurants along with nearly every bar have pull tab opportunities."
Thomas said if there were two or three more casinos the city could use that tax revenue and dedicate it to streets or parks, two areas the city is struggling to find funds to maintain. Voters last year turned down a property tax increase to pay for repairs to streets and parks.
Thomas added that gambling is a form of a "self-imposed tax" since people choose whether or not to gamble.
If the city allows casinos, any zoning district in the city that allows restaurants would have to allow a business that wanted a gambling license from the state, City Attorney Tom Brubaker told the council. The city would not be able to limit the number of casinos.
"At this current point in the economy there is not likely to be a flood of applications," Brubaker said about how many casinos might want to open in Kent if the ban is removed. "The number of social card rooms has dropped from 96 to 58 in the state."
Great American also has casinos in Tukwila, Lakewood and Everett. The Kent casino has lost more than $1 million the last two years, said David Fretz, Great American president, in testimony in front of the council. The casino has 105 employees.
"We've been in Kent for about 10 years but the last couple of years have been difficult from an economic standpoint," Fretz said. "Gaming has increased to $2.6 billion per year in the state but $2.1 billion is at tribal casinos (which allow slot machines). The house banked (card games) has declined significantly. Our casino in Kent has suffered."
Fretz said Great American would like to move to another site in order to increase its size and be closer to a more affluent area. The casino is at
20500 108th Ave. S.E. He added the closure last year of Albertsons cut down on foot traffic to the casino.
But the city would have to remove its ban for the casino to move elsewhere in Kent, Brubaker said. That also would open up the rest of the city to potential casinos.
Councilwoman Jamie Perry said she would like know what residents think of the idea to expand casino gambling.
"I have a hard time taking this on," Perry said. "I have not heard an outcry for more casinos. If we could tightly control this and fit them in a box but we don't have that ability to zone. I'm not willing to open up Southeast 240th Street, the Benson and Highway 99 to casinos."
Councilwoman Dana Ralph said she is open to more discussion about the issue and also wants to know what residents think.
"I have less problems with casinos than I do with marijuana stores," Ralph said about the city's ban on medical marijuana businesses. "I'd rather see 10 casinos."
Thomas would like Kent to possibly follow the lead of neighboring cities.
"With the exception of Covington, all the nearby cities allow gaming," Thomas said about Auburn, Renton, Federal Way, SeaTac and Tukwila.
A couple of council members had concerns about criminal activity at casinos. Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas told the council there has been no problems at Great American Casino in Kent and that he talked to fellow chiefs at Auburn, Renton and Federal Way and they reported zero criminal activity at casinos except for several calls to the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn.Contact Kent Reporter Courts, government reporter Steve Hunter at email@example.com or 253-872-6600, ext. 5052.