At council hearing, majority of speakers oppose casino

By Alyson E. Raletz

Health, safety, morality and money were just some of the reasons residents recently told the County Council why they oppose a casino in south county.

While a few residents spoke last week in favor of Pinnacle Entertainment’s proposal for a south county casino, the majority of speakers opposed the idea.

County councilmen conducted their second public hearing on casinos May 13 — the fourth session of an ongoing Committee of the Whole meeting that began April 20. The council is considering a proposal by Pinnacle Entertainment to develop gaming and non-gaming facilities at the former National Lead Site in Lemay.

The proposed $300 million investment has earned the seal of approval of the St. Louis County Economic Council and Port Authority, but needs a license from the Missouri Gaming Commission before it can begin construction. The commission does not anticipate making a decision until mid-July. County councilmen intend on submitting an official opinion to the Gaming Commission before it makes its final decision.

Pinnacle Entertainment also has been selected by the city of St. Louis to develop a casino in Laclede’s Landing, across the street from the Edward Jones Dome, and is vying for a second license.

In the county’s consideration of Pinnacle’s proposal, it has met with Pinnacle and Economic Council employees, area leaders who oppose gaming, and two weeks ago the council reconvened for an unprecedented public hearing outside of its Clayton chambers in Lemay.

Those who spoke during the May 6 public hearing at Hancock Elementary School were not permitted, however, to address councilmen during last week’s public hearing in Clayton — a meeting intended to gather input from residents of other parts of the county.

In Lemay, speakers speaking on behalf of organizations that favored the casino outnumbered organization speakers who opposed the proposal, while individual speakers speaking only for themselves were split on the issue.

While smaller numbers of people attended last week’s hearing, more of them opposed a south county casino — with 22 people indicating that they supported Pinnacle’s proposal and 28 people indicating they opposed it.

The hearing recently conducted in Clayton revealed that one speaker representing an organization favored the proposal with three speakers representing an organization opposing the proposal, while two individual speakers supported the proposal and 14 individual speakers opposed it.

A total of 50 people attended last week’s hearing, according to the attendance sheets people were asked to sign before entering the council’s chambers. During the casino hearing conducted in Lemay May 6, 321 people signed attendance forms.

Councilmen were scheduled to meet Tuesday — after the Call went to press — in executive session to review public comment and consider the Pinnacle proposal.

During last week’s public hearing, Don Cannon of South County First submitted a petition that included 1,800 signatures of people who agree south county is no place for a casino.

Remarking that Chinese-American citizens are particularly vulnerable to the addictive nature of gambling, the Rev. David Cheung told councilmen that casinos are a “quick fix” to the government’s treasury in the midst of economic hardships.

In the long-term, Cheung said that more people would be hurt by a casino than the county would benefit.

“It makes no sense to add a casino anywhere else in the area,” Cheung said.

Forrest Miller of Crestwood, who owns the Royale Orleans Banquet Center in Lemay, spoke on behalf of the Missouri Restaurant Association, also opposing a south county casino.

Casinos have put other industries into a non-competitive playing field, Miller said, claiming that one slot machine generates from $40,000 to $60,000 a year.

“This exorbitant amount of income is used to undermine all of the employers,” he said. “Our products do not produce anything near that profit margin … We cannot offer the benefits or rate of pay the casinos can. So, what actually happens is a job transfer. They take our best employees, pay them more. And then we have to replace our workers. The quality of the remaining worker is reduced and the amount we are able to pay them is reduced. Casinos have taken away our employees, our customers and our community’s disposable income — thus reducing our productivity and increasing our costs to replace these workers.”

But councilmen should listen to the residents of Lemay and approve the Pinnacle proposal, according to Robert Brennecke of Ballwin.

“The Lemay residents seem to have a very good idea about this casino because the majority of them seem to want it. The National Lead property would be a wonderful place for the casino to be put because of the health advantages after its cleaned up,” Brennecke said.

“Since the majority of the residents are in favor of the casino and there would be tax advantages for the St. Louis County area … I think it would behoove us to vote in this way. Since gambling is legal and the Lemay plan is a solid plan — a solid, practical plan — I believe we should make the right decision and approve the casino in the Lemay area.”

Tim Richards spoke on behalf of Clergy Against Gambling Expansion, which includes 50 clergymen and clergywomen from 10 Christian denominations.

“We are unified because we know that casino gambling nearly always leads to an increase of societal problems,” Richards said, adding the highest suicide rate in the world is in Las Vegas, Nev.

Crime, divorce and bankruptcy rates also increase, the CAGE representative said, in areas close to casinos.

“We the clergy of the St. Louis area will be there to provide comfort and to hold hands with families going through crisis,” he said. “Yet you the council will make the decision that will have an enormous impact on our community in the years to come. The statistics are far more than numbers …”

Ron Rice, who identified himself as a former teacher of a St. Louis public school, said St. Louis is seen as “easy and rich” to casinos.

“I’ll give you four words,” Rice said. “Boeing, Budweiser, Chrysler and Ford. Let’s protect our income in this region. Don’t let it go to casinos.”

A communication arts teacher at Hancock High, Bob Keeling told councilmen that he believes the Pinnacle proposal could bring from $1.5 million to $2 million in additional revenue to the Hancock School District in Lemay.

“And I know what I make and that’s going to pay for a lot of teachers,” Keeling said, asking the council to approve the proposal.

Tim Grayam, a city resident, said he was frustrated with the lack of momentum for development downtown, telling councilmen he would prefer all effort be put into obtaining a license for a downtown casino.

“St. Louis is its downtown,” Grayam said. “All of this momentum is going towards it. Why build another reason for people to go outside of the city? … I agree with all of these negative implications of a south county casino. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not a convention center. I mean, there are no tourists that come here. It’s just drawing income and revenue out of south county.

“If we’re going to build one, let’s build a massive one downtown, which will make tourists want to come … people out of town will be spending their money in our city, in our region, rather than just drawing from our suburbs … I am just so frustrated with the lack of motivation of our average suburbanite,” he continued. “I mean, I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis. I just recently moved to the city, but that is the heartbeat of our region and why not dedicate every opportunity we have to make it great again, to make it St. Louis — to make it a world-class city instead of a decaying downtown?”