Despite winning County Council vote, North County casino still faces hurdles
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2009 - After winning a contentious vote in the St. Louis County Council, backers of a proposed $350 million north county casino complex still face tough financial times, the need for a gaming license, more government OKs and opposition that is determined to preserve the site in its current state.
But what may seem like long odds don't appear to faze attorney Ed Griesedieck, who has been the public face of the project since it was announced. He says the most optimistic timeline has the complex opening in two years, depending on when the developers can strike a deal with a casino operator.
That deal may be tougher than normal, given the strict availability of financing, but Griesedieck says North County Development LLC has a lot to offer.
"Anybody who is aware of the economic situation at this time is aware that financing is tighter than it has been in some time," he said. "But Missouri has the second-highest growth of any state that allows gaming. It is a very attractive market for any operator nationwide. If you are an operator and are interested in expanding, Missouri is one of the first locations you are going to look at."
But where Griesedieck sees financial opportunity, those who have fought the project see pristine land near the confluence of the nation's two great rivers and an area that needs development that fits better into the way things are now than a casino, convention center, golf course, theater, retail and parking for 8,000 cars.
Dora Gianoulakis, president of the Spanish Lake Community Association, says her group isn't about to sit back and let the development move ahead without a fight.
"We are looking into what other groups across the country have done with these kinds of issues," she said. "We are talking with lots of people here in St. Louis who have experience in the law. A lot of people are working on this. It's no longer just the Spanish Lake group.
"There are lots of hoops that have to be jumped through, and we'll be there at every stage."
CLEAR BATTLE LINES
From the time that plans for the 377-acre site were announced, those for and against the proposal have not been shy about making their views known. The divisions were clear at a hearing of the county's Planning Commission in August.
Turning out in large numbers were union members and municipal and school officials in north county, pushing for the jobs and the tax revenue that the project would bring. Griesedieck told the commission that as many as 2,500 construction jobs and 2,250 permanent jobs would result from the casino complex.
Equally fervent were opponents of the project, including environmentalists, those who are against gambling and those who want to preserve the character of the area. Gianoulakis said she had gathered 1,400 signatures on petitions against the project, and anti-gambling witnesses said several casinos already exist not too far from the site.
They also noted the negative effect it would have on the adjacent 4,300-acre Columbia Bottom wildlife area.
The developers won, both in the Planning Commission and in the County Council, though the votes were not without controversy. Commission Chairman Douglas Morgan recused himself from the issue, citing his friendship with one member of the development group, Ken Goldstein.
And when the council took its final vote on the project last week, Councilman Steve Stenger, an Affton Democrat, sided with the majority in the 4-2 vote - a decision that did not sit well with Daniel Lee, who was then head of Pinnacle Entertainment, which will operate a casino set to open next year in Stenger's district.
Angry at the vote that could lead to competition for Pinnacle, Lee tried to confront Stenger as the meeting went on, then told Stenger's assistant that he wouldn't forget what the councilman had done. Lee apologized for the outburst the next day, but a few days later Pinnacle announced he had resigned to "pursue other business interests."
Griesedieck said he did not expect the dustup to have any effect on the north county group's effort to reach agreement with a casino operator.
"We look forward to working with Pinnacle in any way that we can," he said. "We hope to have a license and be a friendly competitor with them or work with them to promote gaming in the St. Louis area."
The question of a gaming license is only one of the hurdles that the development group faces.
Currently, all of Missouri's 13 casino licenses are spoken for, and the vote last year that lifted loss limits on the casinos also put a lid on the number of licenses. Griesedieck said that for the casino to proceed -- and without it, he said, the project could not go forward -- one of three things must happen.
First, an existing casino could lose its license and have it be put up for bid by the Missouri Gaming Commission. Second, an existing operator could opt to move its license to the north county site. Third, the cap of 13 licenses could be increased.
It's unclear which -- if any -- of those is most likely. Griesedieck said that "there are several operators in the state of Missouri whose financial reports would lead one to believe that they could operate more profitably in other locations." He also said the attorney general's office has indicated that any licensee that moved its operations or shut it down for a period of time stood to have its license made available to others -- a reference to the possibility that the President casino might shut down if the Admiral riverboat has to have its hull replaced.
Noting objections to the project, Griesedieck said Missourians approved gambling in 1993 and that a majority continues to find it acceptable. "People who oppose gaming are a minority," he said, "and this location has all the attributes that are necessary for a fine and exemplary gaming location."
As far as environmental questions, he noted that any site operating so close to the water will have to pass muster with the Metropolitan Sewer District, the Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies. "We don't anticipate any extraordinary problems," Griesedieck said.
OPPONENTS LINING UP
If opponents of the project have their way, Griesedieck's confidence will not be justified.
Besides the Spanish Lake Community Association, the casino development has drawn opposition from individuals and groups concerned about the environmental effects of the casino.
"There will be plenty of opportunities to challenge this project," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "It is poor in every possible way you can imagine. I think it's doomed because it's such a bad concept, just because the math doesn't work on it.
"When you look at what this sucker is going to cost taxpayers and ratepayers -- the real live numbers and not the fictional numbers the developers tell you -- the numbers are not going to add up. That's really what is going to kill this."
Renata MacDougal, director of the ancient studies program at Webster University, brings up another concern -- the historic nature of the land around the site where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet, across from the location of the historic Cahokia settlement. She says the site is largely unexplored and needs to be preserved for work over the next 150 years.
"These confluence lands are a part of this ancient culture and are not yet academically explored or well understood," she said. "The confluence of the rivers may have had sacred connotations.
"This development proposes to build up the flood plain 30 feet in some spots, and is required to do so using only existing soil on the land. Imagine what that will do to the archaeological remains, let alone the floodway."
Instead of using the land for a casino, MacDougal would like to see the County Council pursue money to buy the land and take advantage of its wetlands and its value for ecotourism.
"A casino is the worst possible development for this site," she said. "There are other ways and plenty of unused land and commercial buildings in north county to provide many, many jobs and an influx of citizens into the area."
Besides the environmental concerns, Smith said, she finds a lot of people who are not happy about how gambling has expanded in the state.
"Missouri voters are getting tired of being told one thing and seeing something else. Riverboat gambling became boats in moats, and now it's building somewhere near a river," she said.
"I think we're getting fed up and there's not going to be that much more erosion of the public will that will be tolerated. I can talk to all my ecological friends about the ecological issues, but everyone I talk to, even if they have no notion of the ecological issues, they say why do we need another casino?"