Anti-gaming activist ‘pretty optimistic’ despite council’s support of Pinnacle

By Alyson E. Raletz

An anti-gaming activist is feeling “pretty optimistic” right now, despite the County Council’s support of a south county casino.

The council voted 4-2 June 1 to adopt a resolution that backs Pinnacle Entertainment’s proposal to construct a 90,000 square-foot casino at the former National Lead Site in Lemay.

“I feel very optimistic. Of course I’m disappointed that they voted the way they did, but I think we are winning this fight because I don’t think Pinnacle is capable of pulling off two casinos …,” Rally Against Gambling Expansion founder Denny Hettenhausen told the Call. “There is too much uncertainty as far as the city proposal …”

With the competition of the Casino Queen and the recent bankruptcy of the Admiral, Hettenhausen said she believes too many unknowns exist for the Missouri Gaming Commission to award a license for Pinnacle’s proposed downtown casino — which, in turn, she believes, would make it hard for the company to obtain a license for the Lemay site.

“I think the Gaming Commission will look at it as they need to protect the interests of the city …,” she said. “Even though the county voted to support Pinnacle in Lemay, I don’t think it will work … There’s too much uncertainty with Pinnacle itself.”

She said she is disappointed that the County Council did not hire an independent financial adviser to review Pinnacle because she believes the company’s financial strength is on shaky ground and has yet to be proved.

“The County Council is not qualified to look at finances,” Hettenhausen contended. “I think the Gaming Commission will take it more seriously. I feel good about the position we are in now. That doesn’t mean we are going to stop fighting — because we’re not. We will continue to fight as hard as we can … I really feel like there is something better out there for Lemay and we’re going to get these casinos stopped.”

Other area officials are optimistic right now, but for different reasons.

Hancock Place Superintendent Ed Stewart is elated that the county is supporting the Pinnacle proposal.

“I’m obviously pleased and happy because now Pinnacle has gotten the blessing of the (Port Authority) committee commissioned to study it, the Port Authority, the Economic Council and now the County Council …,” Stewart said noting that one step is left — the Missouri Gaming Commission. “The initial news is good, in support of the proposal. We’re really happy with that. But it’s not a done deal.”

The superintendent still is having conversations with County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, concerning the logistics of an educational foundation that accompanies Pinnacle’s proposal.

If awarded the license, Pinnacle’s lease agreement with the Port Authority would participate in a payments in lieu of taxes program and give about $4 million annually to south county school districts, including the Affton, Hancock, Bayless, Mehlville and Lindbergh school districts.

However, councilmen have questioned the legality of such a PILOT, of which Stewart is investigating.

He soon plans to meet with financial advisers from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Missouri School Board Association lawyers and Hancock’s attorney to help formulate a way to ensure the legality of the PILOT at the request of the councilmen.

The County Council’s recent adoption of a resolution endorsing the proposed casino at Lemay validates the work of many county officials, according to Greg Hayden.

A member of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, Hayden served on the Port Authority/Economic Council selection committee that initially evaluated gaming proposals from Pinnacle, Harrah’s and Isle of Capri in December and January.

Isle of Capri and Harrah’s both proposed casinos west of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in Oakville. The Harrah’s proposal was dismissed early in the selection process because the company did not submit a companion city proposal. The selection team ultimately recommended that the Port Authority execute a lease agreement with Pinnacle.

“From the chamber’s perspective, we are excited the council is supporting the Pinnacle proposal … Personally, I feel good about what the County Council has decided because it is validating the selection committee, what the selection committee’s conclusion was …”

He said he believed the Pinnacle proposal had an 80 to 90 percent chance of being issued a license by the Missouri Gaming Commission, noting that the project had great economic development potential.

While Hayden respects Councilman Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury, and Councilman Greg Quinn, R-west county, who voted against the resolution, he said he did not agree with some of their recent public statements regarding the county’s budget becoming dependent on gaming revenue.

“I don’t believe that’s a problem,” Hayden said. “Take a look at Maryland Heights and St. Charles, what it has done at those locations. It’s just been a financial benefit to them. It’s allowed monies to be invested in communities, I think the money would be a shot in the arm — not a dependency situation …”

Barbara Hehmeyer of the Lemay Development Corp. told the Call she is eager to see Pinnacle remediate the former National Lead Site and revitalize 80 acres of abandoned riverfront property.

“We have spoken out quite emphatically in favor of this development … We are very pleased with the County Council’s decision,” said Hehmeyer, who also serves as executive director of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce.

But Don Cannon of South County First believes that if the county was concerned with economic development, councilmen should not have supported Pinnacle’s casino development proposal.

“I would have hoped that our elected officials would have given something of more substance in their excuse for doing this than the justifications that they used,” Cannon told the Call.

Information, studies and details regarding the negative economic effects gaming has on a community were submitted to the council, he said, but were ignored.

“John Campisi, for instance, has referred to the information and studies that were given to him by us and others, he’s referred to them as either pro-casino or anti-casino — the implication being that if the report had anything to say about the casinos that possibly he may not (have) agree(d) with or sounded as if they were negative, then they were anti-casino reports and thrown out.”

“That leaves no room to look at a study as an objective study,” he added.

South County First hired William Thompson, a professor from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nev., to conduct a St. Louis metropolitan area gaming impact study because no studies on that topic had been conducted, Cannon said.

That study, which was based on public data, indicated that most money that will be generated by casinos will leave the state and never return to the St. Louis area, while also negatively affecting the county economy, he said.

Cannon believed the study was unbiased and should have been considered more seriously by councilmen.

“My question to Mr. Campisi and Mr. (Skip) Mange is that these casinos are not the direction to go. They want the casino for economic benefits? Yet when you look at monetary reports, more money will be leaving than staying here. This isn’t rational,” he contended.

Campisi and Mange, R-Town and Country, who serves as council chairman, both voted to support Pinnacle’s proposal.

Besides Pinnacle, other companies proposing casino developments are:

• Harrah’s — One proposed facility that would be located in St. Louis County near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in Oakville.

• Isle of Capri — Two facilities with one that would be located in downtown St. Louis, while the other would be constructed near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

• Riviera — One proposed facility that would be located in Jefferson County near Barnhart.