Three gaming companies placing their bets on south county

By Alyson E. Raletz

Harrah’s, Pinnacle Entertainment and Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. have placed their bets on south county and each company last week had a 45-minute chance to prove why its proposal is holding the best hand.

While the public presentations revealed three strong gaming proposals for south county, Denny Coleman, chairman of the St. Louis County Port Authority’s selection committee and the St. Louis County Economic Council’s chief executive officer, said the committee will have to determine which proposal would provide the most benefits to St. Louis County.

Developers didn’t leave the table last week without ensuring the committee knew the potential benefits of each proposal.

Isle of Capri Casinos touted an estimated $10.2 million in additional tax revenue in the first five years of operation for Mehlville School District and the company’s commitment to strong female and minority participation, while Pinnacle Entertainment emphasized its willingness to remediate environmental problems at the former National Lead Site in Lemay and its potential donation of developed park land for the community. Harrah’s plugged its proven financial experience and strength in the county, while also claiming that its facility would create the most new business and new tax dollars for the region in comparison to the other two proposals.

“The overall quality of proposals for each developer is very high and I think that represents the opportunity in the market place that the Missouri Gaming Commission noted when they decided to reopen the selection process,” Coleman told the Call.

“The competitive nature of each proposal makes the job of the selection committee a difficult one, but it also means the community will wind up with a better project.”

Still, each casino team was put on the spot when faced with questions from members of the selection committee and the public. The selection committee asked teams how visible their facilities would be to the public.

Tim Hinkley, president of Isle of Capri Casinos, which is proposing a 70,000-square-foot casino and a 30,000-square-foot non-gaming facility south of Interstate 255/270 and west of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge estimated to cost $157 million, showed team members that its actual casino would not be seen from most nearby locations, such as the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery and nearby neighborhoods. However, Hinkley did note that the top of its facility high-rise hotel could be seen from those sites.

Daniel Lee, chairman and chief executive officer of Pinnacle Entertainment, which is proposing a 90,000-square-foot gaming facility and a 360,000-square-foot non-gaming facility that would cost $300 million at the former National Lead site, said that even neighbors will have a hard time seeing the Pinnacle facility because no part of it will include high-rise buildings. Lee told the Call that the facility’s highest point will come from a part of the facility that, at the most, would be five floors tall and most of the structure will be covered and hidden behind trees. In fact, he said the company will have to construct signage to direct customers to the facility.

Coleman told the Call that he believed one of the most important questions for Harrah’s was why the company did not also submit a proposal for a city location. Isle of Capri and Pinnacle both are eyeing additional casino sites in Laclede’s Landing in downtown St. Louis.

Harrah’s Entertainment is proposing a 90,000-square-foot gaming facility and a 180,000 square-foot non-gaming facility also west of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge and south of the Isle of Capri site that would cost $275 million.

Harrah’s response indicated it could not promise or guarantee a particular downtown site and decided to solely pursue a county location, according to Coleman.

Harrah’s spokesman David Strow told the Call the company is extremely interested in its location near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge because it will not depend on business from other casinos.

“The site we’re proposing will have the least amount of cannibalization than any other St. Louis location,” Strow said. “It will create new business, versus transferring business from one St. Louis casino to another.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the late County Executive George R. “Buzz” Westfall agreed earlier this year to explore a revenue-sharing plan between the city and county and solicited companion casino proposals. Coleman told the Call that a revenue-sharing plan is possible since Pinnacle and Isle of Capri Casinos submitted proposals for both county and city locations.

But Coleman noted Harrah’s was not out of the picture just because it submitted a single county proposal.

“We and the city staff agreed that it makes the most sense to get a better handle on who we each feel is best for our jurisdiction before we get together and talk about any sort of revenue issues or how joint operations might work,” Coleman said. “It’s conceivable that we’ll come up with one company, them another. There’s a whole different dynamic to work out between two governments.”

The selection committee is scheduled to offer its recommendation to the St. Louis County Port Authority Jan. 15. Coleman said the selection committee plans to meet several times before it finalizes its recommendation. He said he anticipates that the committee will know tentatively which proposal the city will select before the county committee makes its selection, but he said the committee still will aim to select the proposal that best fits the needs of the county.

“Obviously we will not be ruling out Harrah’s,” he said. “They are a very strong company and have a very successful presence already in St. Louis county. I don’t think we should discount them. Each site and each proponent has strengths and weaknesses. We have to take the whole picture into account.”

In an unrelated question, Pinnacle was asked how it selected the Lemay site knowing the site was proposed once before and rejected by the Missouri Gaming Commission.

Lee told the Call that the site it is proposing is in a slightly different location than what was previously proposed.

The actual structure actually is further away from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who strongly opposed the previous casino proposal at the former Lead Site. The proposal also includes the construction of a new roadway between Broadway and Lemay Ferry Road along the River des Peres and the Lemay site, which would significantly improve access to the site, he said. It is the only site in the county that will allow the casino to stretch out across 80 relatively flat acres and will be large enough draw from not only the south county, but Illinois market, Lee said.

Also, Lee answered answered environmental questions because Pinnacle wants to build on the former National Lead Site. He said he acknowledges the chemical and flooding concerns.

“But it’s just money,” Lee told the Call.

Realistically, he said it will cost the project more in time than money to remediate the property of any environmental hazards and to construct flood control devices, but he said he does not see that as a problem with the proposal. He noted that he knew of no other companies that would be willing to do this for the county.

Greg Hayden, a selection committee member who also is the president of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, asked Isle of Capri Casino representatives how the company’s proposed casino would affect Gateway Accessible Housing III. The facility, a nearly five-year-old housing complex, caters to low-income and mobility-impaired residents, and is on Kinswood Lane just south of Interstate 255/270, roughly a half mile west of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

Gateway Accessible Housing III residents expressed concerns earlier this month after viewing an artist’s rendering of the Isle of Capri site. The rendering does not include Kinswood Lane and residents became unsure where their complex would be located in reference to the proposed casino.

Tom Campbell of Gallop, Johnson and Neuman, an attorney who represents Isle of Capri, told Hayden that the casino would not force any of the residents of the complex to leave their homes. As previously reported in the Call, Campbell said that the casino would sit at least 1,500 feet away from those residents, which would not displace the complex.

Committee members also asked Isle of Capri Casino representatives how local restaurants, hotels and businesses could compete with the amenities of a new casino in their communities.

Hinkley, Isle of Capri’s president and chief operating officer, answered that yes, the casino will raise the bar and create healthy competition, but the only establishments that would result from the Isle of Capri’s presence in south county would be the poor performing ones.

“We’re bringing people to town,” Hinkley said. “We’re only building 228 suite hotel rooms. Other people will need a place to sleep … We will compete fairly … Good entrepreneurs will adjust to what we are offering.”