JEFFERSON CITY — It sounds like a great idea, but is it fair to expect the casino industry to bear the cost? That’s the question before the Missouri Senate Economic Development Committee regarding the construction of a steamboat museum in Jefferson City.
The catalyst is the Arabia, a steam-driven sidewheel paddleboat that hit a submerged log in the Missouri River and sank near Kansas City in 1856. In 1988, a team located the Arabia under more than 50 feet of cornfield, excavated the site and brought 200 tons of cargo, much of it in pristine condition, to a brand new museum in the River Market area of Kansas City. The lease on the museum will expire in 2026, and the owners plan to move on.
“If the museum closes, and there’s nothing done in Missouri, this whole collection could move to Pennsylvania,” museum advocate Bob Priddy told the committee. “And we simply don’t think we can allow that to happen.”
To prevent that, and to launch a monument to Missouri’s steamboat heritage, the Arabia owners propose to use the former site of the State Surplus Property warehouses, just east of the old Missouri State Penitentiary, for a new, steamboat museum.
“In the great halls of the Smithsonian, as big and as majestic as it is, there’s not one collection in there that rivals that of the Arabia,” Arabia museum owner David Hawley testified.
Hawley said there could be as many as 400 sunken steamboats between St. Louis and the state of Montana. In 2016, he located the Malta, the namesake for Malta Bend, Missouri, which sank in 1841. Hawley’s core sampling recovered a stash of gold buttons, sufficient temptation to chase the $3 million he needs to excavation.
Jefferson City Senator Mike Bernskoetter proposed to get the money for the museum and future excavation projects by adding a dollar to the per-gambler fee the casino industry pays to the state for anyone who steps onto a gaming floor.
“Because no industry in the state of Missouri has ever capitalized on our steamboat as much as the casino industry, Priddy noted.
That’s nearly 40 million people a year, and thus, $40 million out of the till. An industry that tends to report declining revenues wants no part of that obligation.
“On our smallest operators, it’s going to increase their taxes by $700,000,” said Mike Winter of the Missouri Gaming Association. “And on the largest operators, it’s almost $5.6 million.”
Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin told the committee the capital city is the only logical place for a museum celebrating the heritage of steamboats. Lobbyist Jewell Patek told the panel he found it ironic that a city where voters early on had rejected casino gaming now wants to tap the industry for the money needed to build a tourist attraction.
The committee took no immediate action.
Jefferson City Representative Dave Griffith has filed an identical bill in the House.