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Cape Girardeau chosen for Missouri's final casino license

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2010 - The Missouri Gaming Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to pick Cape Girardeau as the site for the state's last available casino license, rejecting bids from St. Louis and suburban Kansas City.

The $125 million project -- the clear preference in an economic impact study released by the state last week -- is expected to include 1,000 slot machines, 28 table games, three restaurants, a lounge and terrace overlooking the Mississippi River and a 750-seat event center. It will be built by Isle of Capri, which is headquartered in Creve Coeur. Target date for opening is the end of 2012.

Wednesday's vote does not actually grant a license to Isle of Capri; that decision does not come until the facility is actually constructed and ready to open. But it does designate Cape Girardeau as the commission's choice for the final license, which became available when the President casino in downtown St. Louis closed earlier this year.

"We thank the Missouri Gaming Commission for their confidence in our project, and greatly appreciate the support of Cape's citizens and elected officials," Paul Keller, Isle's chief development officer, said in a statement released after the vote.

"This project represents one of the largest economic development projects in the history of Cape Girardeau. Our goal is to build a showpiece for southeast Missouri, enhance the historic downtown area and bring hundreds of quality jobs to the community. We look forward to working closely with city and state officials as we prepare to begin construction in early summer."

In an interview, Keller said that he thought the Cape Girardeau proposal won because it would bring the most economic benefits to the state, in terms of new taxes and new jobs.

"Ever since River City opened," he said, pointing to the new casino in south St. Louis County, "I think it's been pretty obvious if you look at the numbers that the St. Louis market has reached its saturation point. There just wasn't any advantage to the state to award another license to a saturated market.

"Cape Girardeau, because it's a new market for gaming, provides new taxes and new jobs. There may have been some concern that awarding the license to St. Louis or Kansas City would have cost jobs at existing operations."

Isle of Capri currently operates Missouri casinos in Kansas City and Boonville as well as in Caruthersville, about 80 miles south of Cape Girardeau. Keller said there would be very little overlap between those two operations.

There is also a casino across the Mississippi River in Metropolis, Ill.

A proposal on last month's ballot, asking whether residents of Cape Girardeau wanted to have a casino, passed with a 61 percent majority. City manager Scott Meyer said Wednesday that the outcome was a key part of the city's push to get the casino license.

"It was important that the Gaming Commission see that the city supported it," he said.

He said the city was "pleased and flattered" by the vote.

"We've said all along that we felt this would be the most favorable situation for the state," Meyer said. "Any time you can bring a developer to your city, to spend $125 million and bring 450 jobs, it's a rare thing to happen. We have been blessed with a lot of great developers and a lot of great businesses here, but things of this size don't happen very often."

Greg Smith, an attorney for Casino Celebration, the group seeking the St. Louis license, said he still believed that the city proposal was the best for the state economically but there was no intention of trying to challenge the commission's decision.

Asked why he thought Cape Girardeau was picked, Smith noted that James Mathewson, chairman of the Gaming Commission, referred to "stacks and stacks of letters" sent in opposition to the Chain of Rocks application, but he wasn't specific. "There was a lot of ambiguity around why they were chosen," Smith said.

He also disagreed with the notion that the St. Louis casino market is oversaturated.

"Growth continues in the market," Smith said. "There is some shifting of revenue, but that's going to happen in a crowded marketplace. I don't think that Cape Girardeau has the density or the spending power that the market for Casino Celebration would have had."

A statement released by the Koman Group, which had spearheaded the effort, said:

"We obviously feel the Casino Celebration project, with the addition of a major gaming industry leader such as Tropicana Entertainment, Inc., offered the best opportunity for the state; however we respect the commission's decision. The Koman family has a strong development history in St. Louis and we look forward to other opportunities.

"The Koman family will honor its commitment to Great Rivers Greenway to sell 11.8 acres of land it owns along the riverfront for future development by the organization. The Koman family committed to major improvements along the greenway as part of its development proposal for the Casino Celebration project."

Susan Trautman, executive director of the Great Rivers Greenway, said that under its agreement with the Koman family, the greenway will be able to buy the land from the Komans adjacent to land at the Chain of Rocks bridge that the greenway already owns.

She said the purchase would ensure public access to the bridge, with improvements including a parking lot and a trailhead.

Trautman said the price for the land will remain confidential for the time being but she expects that by the end of 2011, the purchase will be finalized. At that point, she said, the greenway would work with the Chain of Rocks Community Association on improvements to the area, including issues of safety and security.

"We want to make sure that before we open it to the public, we address that," she said.

Asked about why Great Rivers Greenway broke with environmentalists to endorse the Casino Celebration application, Trautman noted that her group had been trying to buy the property in question for several years and she discussed the issue with environmental groups.

"I understood their opposition to the casino," she said. "They understood what we were trying to do. There are always going to be differing viewpoints, but we were always working with the public interest at heart."

Rodney Crim, executive director for the St. Louis Development Corp., expressed disappointment over the commission's decision, saying St. Louis' proposal was superior in terms of investment, revenue to the state, jobs and its impact in north St. Louis.

He also said challenges by the city to figures in the economic analysis -- on the total revenue from the Cape Girardeau application and assumptions on cannibalization in the St. Louis market -- drew no response from the commission before Wednesday's vote.

"Most of the revenue for Casino Celebration was coming from the Argosy casino on the Alton Belle," he said. "That was revenue coming from Illinois. Plus there are 58,000 cars coming across Interstate 270, and you don't have those kinds of metrics for Cape Girardeau."

He said he did not think environmental objections to the St. Louis proposal had much impact on the decision. Unfortunately, he said, neither did an argument that since the 13th license became available because a St. Louis casino went under, the city should have the inside track for getting the license back.

"We were trying to make that case," Crim said, "that this was the city's license and it should stay in the city. Jobs and revenue were lost when the President closed, and the commission put pressure on the President to surrender that license. We thought we should have preference for the license, to replace those jobs and tax revenue.

"This project did that and more. It was a significant project in terms of providing revenue not only to the state but to the city."

One uncertainty on the horizon is a possible smoking ban in Cape Girardeau that would include the casino along with bars, restaurants and other facilities. Meyer said that initiative petitions to impose the ban are in the process of being certified; after that, the city council can either adopt the ban or put it on a ballot next year.

Keller said that Isle of Capri has been so focused on getting approval from the Gaming Commission that it hasn't concentrated much on that issue. It was one of many factors mentioned in the economic impact study released last week.

Isle of Capri has pledged to hire local residents and to recruit employees with special skills from other areas to live in Cape Girardeau. Along with 400 construction jobs, Isle of Capri said the casino will bring 450 permanent jobs with a payroll of $14 million.

Both Casino Celebration in north St. Louis and an earlier proposal in north St. Louis County near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers had drawn opposition from environmentalists. The St. Louis County project was one of four that made the final cut to make presentations to the Gaming Commission, but it dropped out at the last minute, saying it could not meet the state's deadlines for finalizing its plan.

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.