Sioux City Casino Owner Looks Back on Start of Gaming Business

By next fall Siouxlanders should be able to enjoy the new Hard Rock Casino that's being built in Sioux City.

It's the latest expansion of an industry that actually floundered to get off the ground here.

After the state approved gambling in 1989, there were two failed attempts to bring an operation to Sioux City.

It took a determined group of local business leaders to bring the first casino to town 20 years ago.

October 10th, 1992, the Dewitt Clinton sails into Sioux City.

"It was basically the cheapest boat we could find that would float," said Ted Carlson, president of the former Sioux City Riverboat Corp.

Local businessman Ted Carlson, along with Paul Braunger, D. A. Davis and other investors, spent about $2 million dollars to buy the boat that once ferried tourists around the Statue of Liberty.

A crew of six guided the boat more than 3,000 miles from New York Harbor with a stop in Florida because of Hurricane Andrew and then to Biloxi, Mississippi, where major renovations took place.

"I think the bill for the food and the beverages and so forth just on the boat to get it up here was like $7,000 or $8,000 dollars. And I thought man, what are they drinking," he said.

Work on transforming the Dewitt Clinton into the Sioux City Sue continued in Sioux City with major challenges that included installing around 80 surveillance cameras even plumbing.

"No one thinks about how much work it is to hook that up to the city and pump it up the hills,"said the Siouxland gaming pioneer.

With the work completed, the opening of the Sue hinged on a final Coast Guard inspection.

"And they said, 'know what? Your stairway is three-quarters of an inch too narrow.' From the top floor to the bottom floor. Of which under this was all solid tile because we had the men's restrooms were under there. They would not let us open. So we had to tear all of that stairwell and add three-quarters of an inch. That was almost the straw that broke the camel's back," said Carlson.

The Dewitt Clinton, now known as the Sioux City Sue, finally opened to gamblers in January of 1993.

And that spring the daily cruises required by state law started taking place.

The cruising requirement and a $2 dollar 'cover charge' were among some of the early rules that not only caused headaches for the boat's operators, but the patrons as well.

"But you'd go out and the poor guy would hit $20 dollars he's going to lose, and he's lost his $20 dollars. Now he's not back for three hours. So he has to sit on the boat," said the businessman.

In May of 1994 the Alton, Illinois-based Argosy Gaming made an offer to take over the gambling operation in Sioux City.

The busy businessmen had a decision to make.

"I think it just got to the point that everyone said, 'this is going to kill us.' And somebody came along and said we're going to give you this for it and we all said that's a good idea," said Carlson.

By December of 1994 the Sue had been replaced with a larger boat called the Belle of Sioux City.

"It was a challenge. It was fun. Uh, would I do it again? Yea," he said.

And Carlson says when he goes by the current boat, it still stirs up a memories.

"You know every time I drive by it, I have to look away because I still have feelings that we should have kept it," said entrepreneur.

Ted Carlson is proud of his role in bringing gambling to the area.

He says it's been good for the city, bringing in lots of jobs and money.

It's also been good for charitable and other organizations that get donations from the license holder, Missouri River Historical Development, also known as "MRHD."

In the beginning, MHRD collected 50 cents for every passenger who went onto the Sue.

It gave away about $28,000 dollars to charitable organizations the first time.

This fall the group handed out $250,000 dollars.