By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FORT THOMAS - A couple of times a year Neil Hollingsworth leaves Campbell County to gamble at southern Indiana's riverboat casinos. His last trip, two weeks ago, was to the Belterra Casino Resort in Switzerland County, Ind., a 45-minute drive from his house here.
Hollingsworth would prefer placing his bets closer to home.
"Most people I know wish they could go to a casino in Northern Kentucky," said Hollingsworth, 32, who works for a Cincinnati collection agency. "They would love to be able to go down to the Ohio River in Newport or Covington and gamble. Imagine if there was a casino down by (Newport on) the Levee. You couldn't build it big enough."
After a decade of discussion and two years of intense debate in Frankfort, legalized gambling in Kentucky has never been closer to reality after it emerged as an issue in the state's gubernatorial debate.
Early in the campaign, Democrat Ben Chandler did not favor gaming. But with an impending state budget deficit that could reach $400 million, Chandler sees it as a way to pay for his education plan.
Republican Ernie Fletcher continues to maintain that he is not in favor of gambling but says, as governor, he would not stand in the way of efforts to legalize it.
Kentucky residents spend about $1 billion a year in neighboring states where casinos and racinos - horse tracks that offer computerized slots, black jack and other gambling.
Kentucky's thoroughbred racing industry, which has unsuccessfully lobbied for racinos during the last two legislative sessions, estimates that gaming would generate $450 million a year for the state on revenues of $1.26 billion.
Projections by the General Assembly have been lower, about $306 million for the state out of $904 million gambled.
Either way, it's money that the state doesn't currently have.
The closest riverboat to Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, the Argosy Casino in Lawrenceburg, is consistently one of the most popular riverboat gaming boats in the nation.
In June that casino generated $34.1 million and attracted nearly 300,000 visitors, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission. And for the year the riverboats in five Ohio River communities - Lawrenceburg, Rising Sun, Switzerland County, Evansville and Elizabeth near Louisville - are projected to show combined revenues of nearly $1 billion.
Northern Kentucky developer Jerry Carroll, former owner of Turfway Park and the current chairman of the Kentucky Speedway in Gallatin County, said for gaming to succeed it must be in casinos that are part of a "mega entertainment complex."
"If you want to compete with Indiana and other places, you have to do it right," said Carroll, who began pushing for legalized gaming 10 years ago when he owned Turfway. "It has to be a casino with entertainment, restaurants and other attractions that make it a destination. The time is right now."
The Associated Press contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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