Friday, March 29, 1996
Reluctantly, casino town may win big

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Even though Lawrenceburg's ship has yet to come in with slot machines blazing, morning still arrives on a hopeful note.

First, the sun splashes on the foothills that hem in Lawrenceburg alongside the Ohio River. Next, the muddy waterway begins to sparkle. Finally, shadows cast by the squat, century-old storefronts lining Walnut Street, downtown's main drag, start to recede.

The sun shines on a city facing up to its uncertain future. Riverboat gambling is coming, but no one can say for sure when.

''Argosy Casino Coming Soon'' promises a billboard near the Lawrenceburg exit off the interstate.

''Soon'' is a date to be named later. A grand jury is investigating the awarding of Lawrenceburg's gambling contracts. This has in essence postponed indefinitely the date a floating casino can dock at the port of Lawrenceburg.

With their ship still offshore, people in this town tend to view their city's future with the guarded optimism of a man with a toothache on his way to the dentist.

Hard sell

Betty Boyd, secretary of the Hamline Chapel United Methodist Church, one levee and two sets of train tracks from where the boat will dock, fears the whole deal. Gambling, she reasons, leads to greed, strife and heartache. ''Nothing good comes of it.''

When gambling hits town, says Ted Baker, ''it's going to be a pain in the sack-a-tilly-tack.'' The newspaper pressman smiles at his mangled pronunciation of ''sacroiliac'' as he sits in his Chevy pickup.

''Traffic is a nightmare now. When that boat gets here, it's going to be even worse. Plus, it'll bring in dope, prostitution, thieves and everybody else who preys on people with money to spend.''

Ted looks down the levee, across the river and into the trees of Kentucky. All's quiet except for the calls of birds and the lapping of the river's waves. He takes a bite of a banana and says, ''It's peaceful up here.''

It won't be much longer. The riverboat casino plans to dock by the levee, at the foot of Walnut Street, not far from the Lincoln spoke here in 1861 sign.

While he concedes Lawrenceburg needs something ''to help it grow,'' Ted Baker confesses he won't take a ride on that boat. ''The average working man doesn't gamble.''

The average teen might be a different customer. Tom ''Don't Use My Last Name 'Cause I'm Cuttin' Class'' stands down the levee from Ted's truck. He's showing three friends from the big city of Cincinnati ''where that boat's gonna be.''

Asked if he's going to feed the slot machines, he answers: ''You bet!''

Bet on growth

Suzy and Dan Quinn insist Lawrenceburg can profit from gambling. Suzy owns and Dan watches over her craft shop, After Chores. It sits on the business end of Walnut Street, where merchants still sweep their stretch of sidewalk every morning, a half block from the proposed gateway to the gambling boat's dock.

The Quinns have just brought me back from a five-minute driving tour of downtown Lawrenceburg. They hit all the high spots. They showed off the business district and the two-story, pre-Civil War houses with the ornate, wrought-iron porches.

The husband and wife team differs over what effect gambling will have on their business. Dan predicts ''five to 10 percent increase.'' Suzy says ''15-25 percent'' and that's indirect income.

''We won't get it from the tourists,'' she says. ''Gambling will help the local businesses from the salaries paid to the people who live here and are hired to work on the boat.''

Lawrenceburg needs the casino, she insists. ''New jobs mean new blood, new money.''

She says this in a calm, cool way, a mix of optimism tempered with pessimism and wrapped in a flat Indiana accent.

That level-headed approach is what strikes me about the people of Lawrenceburg.

No one is wild-eyed about gambling. Nobody's rushing to change the town motto to ''In Craps We Trust.''

They know gambling's not going to pave their streets with gold. But it just might build them a path to the future.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.