Councilmen approve resolution supporting south county casino

By Alyson E. Raletz

Despite some lingering questions about the financial strength of Pinnacle Entertainment, the County Council recently voted to support the company’s proposal for a south county casino.

Councilmen voted 4-2 to adopt a resolution backing Pinnacle’s plan to develop a casino at the former National Lead Site in Lemay during their June 1 session, with Republican members split on the matter.

Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, Chairman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, Councilman Kathleen “Kelly” Burkett, D-north county, and Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county, voted in favor of the resolution, which was introduced by Mange.

However, Councilman Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury, and Councilman Greg Quinn, R-west county, opposed the resolution. Councilman Hazel Erby, D-north county, was absent last week.

“The County Council offers its support to Pinnacle in its efforts to obtain a gaming license, and urges the Gaming Commission to expedite investigation, consideration and approval of this request only after determining that Pinnacle has the financial strength to complete the obligations committed to its presentations,” the resolution states.

Councilmen still are considering a bill that grants County Executive Charlie Dooley permission to execute a contract with Pinnacle Entertainment, but the bill’s second reading was held last week.

The resolution approved by councilmen, Mange told the Call, needed to be adopted to forward to the Missouri Gaming Commission as the council’s official opinion before the commission considers St. Louis-area gaming licenses in July.

The bill, which was introduced two weeks ago, is necessary, if approved, to permit a lease agreement with the St. Louis County Port Authority, he said.

The agreement requires Pinnacle to invest no less than $3 million in its entire project, which could include a 90,000-square-foot casino with 100 hotel rooms, and 280,000 square feet of non-gaming facilities, including retail, commercial and entertainment centers.

Campisi told the Call holding the bill was important because councilmen needed more time to review the lease agreement.

Mange, R-Town and Country, told councilmen during their June 1 session the casino issue was the most difficult issue he had faced in his elected career. While he could point out many arguments supporting both sides of the casino debate, Mange said he decided to look at it as an economic issue and ultimately cast his vote in favor of the proposal.

“The gaming industry will serve the south county market in one way or the other,” he said. “If not on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, then they will on the Illinois side … We’ll lose all the economic benefits but still have to address the adverse effects of gaming. We simply cannot let that happen.”

Campisi supported the resolution, he said, because of the Pinnacle proposal’s potential economic benefits and environmental remediation benefits.

“I have listened to the residents of the 6th District … from Oakville, Mehlville, and Tesson Ferry to Concord and Lemay …,” he said. “While I greatly respect the views of those opposed to gaming and the casino in Lemay, the people of Lemay have overwhelmingly expressed their desire to have the opportunity to better their community and their personal lives with these promised improvements and jobs. I cannot rightfully deny them this opportunity for jobs, increased tax revenues and community improvements.”

Campisi currently is forming a citizens’ panel that will examine the development of Lemay. He wants it formed, he said, in case the Missouri Gaming Commission does not award Pinnacle a license for a Lemay casino. Its first task, he said, will be to look for companies that would be interested in the former National Lead Site.

Odenwald, however, believed the county should have done more to attract economic development for Lemay before casinos became an issue. In past weeks and months, Odenwald said it appears that Lemay residents have expressed that they overwhelmingly support Pinnacle’s proposal for a casino at the National Lead Site.

“I have to say no wonder people in the Lemay community would turn to a gambling boat because there hasn’t been any other development in that area for the past many years,” he said.

The county purchased the “polluted” site 27 years ago, the 5th District councilman noted. Since then, he said, no investment was made to clean up the site and make it available for substantive development.

“For the past 27 years, this site has set in a polluted cesspool and this county has not made the attempt to clean it up …,” he said, noting he realized that recently the county had applied for grants to help remediate sections of the site. “Still, very little has been dealt with, so no wonder we have not been able to attract real, legitimate businesses … to the Lemay area. So the folks in the Lemay area have basically been led in desperation to choose a casino or nothing at all. And that really shouldn’t be their choice.”

He also said he would feel uncomfortable supporting the resolution because of the potential consequences to county funding.

“I think this resolution basically endorses a fundamental change in the way that funding services will take place in St. Louis County. And I think St. Louis County will come to rely upon … gaming revenue as a source of revenue for its basic services — not a change that I can accept or live with or we as a council should accept,” Odenwald said.

Quinn, who cast the second “no” vote on the resolution that supports the Pinnacle proposal, echoed Odenwald’s comments regarding the county budget, noting he also did not want the county to rely on gaming revenue to fund county services.

“One of the things, I guess, that has always concerned me about gambling is that … government will become dependent on gambling and the gambling industry,” he said. “That money will immediately go into the St. Louis County budget as soon as its generated and we will immediately become dependent on gambling revenues and the gambling industry.”

Quinn also noted that people proposing casinos often promote the development’s potential multiplier effect.

“I really honestly don’t think there will be a multiplier effect. The reason is because I don’t think people from outside the area — we won’t get tourists to visit the casino,” he said. “So, what will happen is these people in the area spending the money, if they don’t spend more money than they’ve been spending, what it will do is it will begin to draw away from other expenditures, other things in the area.”

He continued, “If they do spend more than they have been spending before, I think that’s a real problem. They’ll be dipping into their savings and borrowing or whatever they have to do in order to spend more. So, the long and short of that is I don’t think there will be a multiplier effect.”

Quinn said he realized Campisi had tried hard over the years to interest some commercial enterprises in the National Lead Site.

“I think some of those things would have had a multiplier effect. Unfortunately, just the attributes of the site, most notably the … environmental remediation that is necessary, scared most of those people away, but I do respect his decision in this regard,” he said.

He contended he also was voting against the resolution because he did not believe the financial strength of Pinnacle Entertainment had been proven to the council, adding that is an issue that faces the Gaming Commission.

Dooley told councilmen that he appreciated the process they had gone through to consider the proposal — a proposal he supports.

“I’ve indicated from the beginning that I’m for this,” Dooley said. “The only reason that I am for it in this situation is because it is economic development. But even more so, as a county, change is always around us. Change is ever coming to us. It’s not so much that we (should) be afraid of what the change is. It’s understanding what that change is and managing that change and that’s our responsibility as a county, as a board … So, with that, I thank the County Council for a mindful deliberation and I say we just move on and move forward.”