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Casino complex in Spanish Lake faces long odds, as opponents outnumber proponents at public hearing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2009 - If the lineup of speakers at a public hearing Monday night is any indication, a proposed $350 million casino complex in Spanish Lake may face long odds for approval.

Developers are asking the St. Louis County Planning Commission to rezone nearly 377 acres north of Interstate 270, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, to allow construction of the casino, golf course, convention center, theater, restaurants, retail and more on the now-vacant land in an economically depressed area.

But opponents, ranging from a residents group to environmentalists to anti-gambling activists, told members of the commission at a polite but sometimes emotional three-hour hearing that the site is the wrong place for such a development. About 30 people spoke against the project, compared with fewer than 10 who were in favor.

"We don't need to destroy the greatest asset we have," said Dora Gianoulakis, president of the Spanish Lake Community Association, after the commission had heard testimony in the County Council chambers in Clayton.

The commission will next take up the project on Sept. 14, where it could make a recommendation or defer the issue for further study. The final say belongs to the County Council.

The plan for the site was first submitted to the county last year but has been on hold. Attorney Ed Griesedieck, representing North County Development LLC, told commission members Monday night that the project would be phased in over a minimum of two years.

He said that the area currently is underserved by casinos. He said that no casino licenses are currently available, since the number has been capped at 13. He also said that North County Development would only develop the project, not operate the casino.

Griesedieck said that if the project wins approval, operators could gain a casino license in one of three ways: if the number of licenses is increased, if a current casino fails and its license becomes available or if an existing casino would choose to relocate to Spanish Lake.

His presentation concentrated primarily on the economic benefits to the area, which other speakers pointed out was included in a recent Forbes magazine list of the 10 fastest-dying areas in the country.

To turn that situation around, Griesedieck said, the casino project would bring between 1,500 and 2,500 construction jobs and 1,750 to 2,250 jobs after construction -- "jobs that are needed in the North County area and in the economy as a whole."

He also enumerated the tax benefits from the project for St. Louis County, Hazelwood schools and other local districts. "We don't want this opportunity to pass us by or pass the county by."

Griesedieck acknowledged that a land use plan for the area from the Spanish Lake Community Association, adopted by the county 10 years ago, says the site should not be used for a casino complex, though he did note that the plan would allow for a "regional attraction."

But, he said, the plan is no more than a guide that could be modified by the county.

Gianoulakis said her association, and others in the area, consider the plan to be stronger than that -- an expression that the developers' plans would change the fundamental character of that part of north county. She said she has gathered more than 1,400 signatures on a petition protesting the casino project.

Far from being underserved by the gambling industry, Gianoulakis and others noted that several casinos are within 30 minutes of the area. Several opponents of the plan expressed opposition to gambling itself.

Harold Hendrick, of the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association, said, "There is no clamoring here for another casino," adding:

"I hope you face up to it and just say this is not a good idea for north county."

Others noted that the site is adjacent to the 4,300-acre Columbia Bottom wildlife area and said that the extensive development proposed would be disruptive to birds that fly over the area. They said the proposed casino is not appropriate for a flood plain.

In addition, residents complained about increased traffic on Riverview Drive, where the entrance to the project would be located.

"Keep the commitment to the residents of Spanish Lake and oppose this proposed development," Gianoulakis concluded.

Principals in North County Development include Brad Lakin, Hallie Lakin, Julie McDonald and Ken Goldstein, Griesedieck said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.