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Gaming Commission hears pros and cons on two casino proposals

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - At times, listening to testimony at the Missouri Gaming Commission's hearing Tuesday morning on two local applications for a casino license felt a little like watching the images in a slot machine whirling around.

There was talk of jobs and the environment and the recession and tourism and money for education and the evils of gambling. And when the spinning stopped, there was even the possibility that none of the four would-be casino developers -- two here, one in Cape Girardeau and one in suburban Kansas City -- would get the state's only remaining license, which became available when the President closed its doors earlier this year.

"There's nothing in the law that we can find that says we have to award a 13th license," commission chair James Mathewson said during the break between testimony on the north St. Louis County proposal near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the city proposal below the Chain of Rocks bridge.

"That's one of the options this commission has -- we do nothing and wait a while."

Noting that the commission has a 14-point action plan it must take into account when it is considering applicants, Mathewson added:

"If we don't see a significant increase in money going to the education fund, what's the point?"

He said that after evaluating the plans and the testimony according to the required procedure, the commission hopes to make a decision by November.

With an overflow crowd attending the hearing at the Renaissance Hotel near Lambert Airport, the commission set aside one hour each for the two St. Louis applicants, after conducting a similar hearing in Cape Girardeau on Monday, and then before heading to its final hearing Wednesday in Sugar Creek, east of Kansas City.

Speakers were asked to keep their remarks to three minutes, and Mathewson wagged his watch at several who went over the limit.

Confluence Site

To take the arguments in order:

Those in favor of the St. Louis County proposal by a group of investors based in Wood River, including Kenneth Goldstein, Julie McDonald and Bradley Lakin, hammered home the argument that the area has been hit hard by the recession and needs the construction jobs that would build the casino and the permanent jobs that would operate it.

Talking about his members, Jerry Feldhaus of the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council told the commission:

"These families aren't in a recession; it's a depression. The only solution is jobs, good paying ones like the ones that would be created by this project."

Feldhaus also noted that the casino site is 3 1-2 miles downstream from the confluence of the two rivers, so the environmental impact by those opposed to the project is overstated. "There's no evidence that water in this area flows uphill," he said.

St. Louis County Councilman Mike O'Mara, a longtime official with the plumbers union, called the casino "good, smart development" for an impoverished area and an opportunity to attract visitors to the St. Louis region overall.

Mark Behlmann, a member of the Hazelwood School Board, said the casino complex would bring the district $10 million a year to its schools, not counting what would be funneled to education in the state in general.

Those opposed to the North County project repeated arguments they have made since they were unsuccessful in their efforts to block the county from rezoning the property as needed before the proposal could go forward.

Former state Sen. John Loudon, who was joined by his daughter Lily, told the commissioners that they should consider themselves environmental stewards of the site for future generations and that stewardship is not compatible with a casino.

"Nobody wants a new casino in this area except a handful of narrow interests," he said.

Several speakers noted that with six casinos already within a 30-minute drive, including two in Illinois, the market in the St. Louis area is saturated and any new casino would merely cannibalize business from existing facilities. If the commission has to grant its final license, they said, it should go to another area.

Cynthia Metcalfe, a former member of the Missouri Conservation Commission, talked of the millions of dollars spent to buy and preserve the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, which now draws 200,000 visitors a year. Putting a casino nearby, with parking for 8,000 cars, bright lights, noise and other effects, would ruin their experience.

Tom Becherer, whose family has owned farmland nearby for four generations, said the casino site is prone to flooding. If the water rises as it did in 1993, the gaming property, instead of being a certain distance from the midpoint of the river as required by law, "would be at the midpoint of the river."

"I am not for or against gambling," Becherer said. "I'm for progress. I'm for labor. I'm for development in Spanish Lake. Just not here."

In an interview after the hearing, Ed Griesedieck, a lawyer for the north county project, disputed environmental concerns at the site, noting that buildings that already exist nearby have not disturbed the flyway for birds or caused other harm.

"There is no credible evidence they have presented whatsoever that supports their concerns," Griesedieck said. "They're really just opposed to gaming, and gaming is obviously allowed in the state of Missouri."

Chain Of Rocks

Such opposition surfaced during the second part of the hearing, on the city site near the Chain of Rocks bridge. Only four people signed up to speak in favor of the project, including Susan Trautman of the Great Rivers Greenway.

She noted that her group had signed a deal with the project developers -- the Koman family, doing business as Casino Celebration -- that would give cyclists access to riverfront property in exchange for land the greenway owned along Riverview Drive.

Second Ward Committeeman Claude Brown -- emphasizing that he was speaking for himself -- said the project "could be a major lifeline for small business in the ward," while Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., said the casino was the right size, in the right location, and was the right project to replace revenue the city lost when the President closed.

Opponents to the Chain of Rocks proposal presented many of the same environmental and casino saturation arguments they did against the confluence project. Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, countered arguments about turning the casino into a tourist destination by noting that the area already has sports teams, museums, theaters and even casinos that can fill that need.

Patricia Hagen of the National Audubon Society called the area "one of our nation's great national treasures," one that is used as a migratory flyway by one-third of the bird species in North America. Peggy Rustige, president of the Riverview Drive Improvement Association, said that with the eagle watching, hiking and biking now popular at the site, no one needs the added traffic a casino would bring.

The only speaker of the day who spoke against gambling in general was Pastor Edwin Bass of the Empowered Church of God in Christ in Spanish Lake. He told the commission that he has heard an increased number of requests for help as economic times grew worse. Calling a new casino a "shell game" that would just move money around, not create new growth, he added:

"We are not helping people who are in trouble by creating an opportunity for them to squander money."

At the start of the two-hour hearing, Mathewson told the crowd that they shouldn't "cheer, holler, hiss or anything else" as witnesses gave their testimony. For the most part, the audience was well-behaved, though when time ran out for people to testify against the confluence proposal, one man shouted several times, asking when he was going to have a chance to speak.

His patience clearly tested, Mathewson replied:

"Maybe you can go out to the sidewalk and speak all you want to."

How Missouri Gaming Commission Evaluates Applications for Casino License

  • Support or opposition of the governing body of the home dock jurisdiction
  • Availability and suitability of a docking site
  • Applicant's financial resources
  • Applicant's experience in managing a licensed gaming operation
  • Applicant's history of regulatory compliance in Missouri and elsewhere
  • Economic impact to the state and the surrounding region
  • Quality and scope of the proposed development
  • Status of government actions required, including environmental impact statement
  • Applicant's integrity
  • Types and varieties of games to be offered
  • Imminence of completion of the facility
  • Applicant's management ability
  • Compliance with applicable statues, rules, charters and ordinances
  • Extend of any public support or opposition
  • Effects on competition

Read the Disclosures

Here are links to the disclosure statements that each of the four applicants has submitted to the Missouri Gaming Commission:
Casino Celebration LLC (North St. Louis City)

IOC - Cape Girardeau LLC

North County Development LLC

Paragon Gaming Missouri LLC (Kansas City)

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.