Gambling on the future in Spanish Lake
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2009 - A group of developers is betting that the St. Louis area would support a casino in the Spanish Lake area. But a group of residents that likes the spot the way it is thinks the plan is a real lemon.
Besides the casino, the North County Development proposal - costing as much $400 million - would include a convention center, restaurants, a theater, shopping, a golf course and parking for 8,000 cars. It would be tucked into 376 acres along the Mississippi River just north of Interstate 270.
The plan, which was first submitted to St. Louis County last year but has been on hold, is now on the agenda of the County Planning Commission on Aug. 10.
That would be only the first hurdle the proposal would face. Next would be the County Council. Financing would have to be arranged and a casino license would have to be granted. Under the most aggressive timetable, said Ed Griesedieck, attorney for North County Development LLC, the complex could be completed in two and a half years.
"This development would bring a tremendous amount of construction jobs where they are desperately needed," Griesedieck said, "and a tremendous amount of full and part-time jobs once it is up and operating. It would be a tremendous shot in the arm."
But Dora Gianoulakis, president of the Spanish Lake Community Association, said the casino project is precisely the kind of development the site does not need. Instead, her group wants the spot near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to remain the way it is, noted for its natural features.
Pointing out that the site was under water for weeks during the flood of 1993, she added:
"This area is not to be developed the way Chesterfield Valley was developed. This area is a tremendous asset to our county and our community, with natural beauty that should be preserved and enhanced with parks, biking trails and hiking trails."
That future was envisioned 10 years ago by a land use plan known as the Spanish Lake Community Area Study, which was adopted by the County Council in 1999. It directed the planning commission to avoid high-density rezoning in areas adjacent to agricultural or park land in the north county community.
"Natural and unique aesthetic qualities of the area should be preserved in public or common ground open space whenever possible," the study said.
Glenn Powers, the county’s director of planning, said that even though the plan was adopted, it doesn’t necessarily restrict how the site may be used.
“We take it pretty seriously,” he said. “Like all general plans, we consult it before we make individual decisions on individual plans. But general plans cover a lot of things, so things can be taken out of context. You’ve got to read these things to get the context.”
Gianoulakis said her group is not against all development in the area. She noted that the National Archives and Record Center would be consolidating its other local sites into a new multimillion-dollar facility that would create or preserve up to 600 jobs for the region. And other commercial development in the I-270 corridor west to Highway 367 is also encouraged, she said.
What her group and others oppose is development that would be a jarring neighbor to the 4,300-acre Columbia Bottom conservation area that Laura Cohen, director of the Confluence Partnership, envisions as part of a bi-state trail network, going over the old Chain of Rocks Bridge into Illinois.
"We're all for the opportunity to help the economic situation and provide jobs," Cohen said. "But it has to be done in a way that really benefits the community and the region."
Besides questions over the proper use of the land, no one can be sure whether the proposed project could get a license to operate a casino. Last year's approval of Proposition A capped the number of licenses in Missouri at 13 - the 12 that are operating now, plus the River City Casino, now under construction on the old National Lead site in Lemay.
Griesedieck said investors in the North County Development - whom he would not identify except to say they are "local businessmen" - want to move ahead to get the necessary approvals and financing for the project, then move to obtain a license.
He said that could be granted in one of three ways. A current license holder could go out of business and surrender its license, particularly one in western Missouri; the law could be changed to expand the number of licenses; or an existing casino could choose to move to the Spanish Lake facility.
The most likely candidate for the third scenario might be the President, now housed in the old Admiral riverboat on the downtown riverfront. Because of declining revenue, its fate has been in question for a while, particularly since the opening of the Lumiere Place casino. Both gambling sites are owned by Pinnacle Entertainment.
At a hearing Tuesday before the Missouri Gaming Commission, Pinnacle said it wants to replace the Admiral with a new vessel downtown. But a question arose about whether that would require the President's license to be put up for bid. The commission did not make a decision on the issue.
Griesedieck said the Spanish Lake area would be a better fit than the city side of the Mississippi River because of is "a much larger site, has wonderful access and would allow you to do a full-scale, top-notch development and not try to put it into a smaller piece of property."
Despite uncertainty over the license -- and the weak economy -- Griesedieck said principals in the development want to get the approval process started because of continued enthusiasm in the project.
"We have had words of support from various chambers of commerce, construction unions and others who would like to see additional development and investment in the north county area.
"Certainly, economic realities will guide the development of this and all other projects. That said, we have received more interest from operators than we had previously, and Missouri as a market has performed at the top or better than most other states. There are several alternatives where an additional license could be made available, and we want to be in place as a viable alternative in case they want to locate in the north county area."