|By Tim Logan, St. Louis
Post-DispatchMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 25, 2010--CLAYTON -- St. Louis' newest casino got the green light from state regulators Wednesday, clearing the way to open its doors next week.
The $375 million River City Casino in Lemay won final approval for a license from the Missouri Gaming Commission, the 13th and final gaming license available in the state.
It will be Pinnacle Entertainment's third St. Louis-area casino, and the second to open here in a little more than two years, capping a building boom that has shaken up the region's $1 billion gambling industry.
Todd George, Pinnacle's regional vice president for St. Louis, said he expects River City to generate about $17 million a month in gambling revenue when it opens, making it the region's third- or fourth-busiest casino.
It also will employ about 1,200 people, which was music to the ears of Garry Earls, chief operating officer for St. Louis County.
"Those people, we know their names. They've got a real job. They're getting a real paycheck," he said. "And those paychecks are happening in south St. Louis County."
The casino is good news for the county for another reason: It gives new life to a dirty, abandoned industrial site on the Mississippi. Pinnacle built the casino on the long-empty National Lead site just south of the mouth of the River Des Peres. It is a place St. Louis County owns and has been trying to reuse for years.
"It was contaminated. It was in a flood plain. And there was no way to get there," said Denny Coleman, president of the St. Louis County Economic Council. "But Pinnacle made this a great site."
Pinnacle also will pay rent to the county -- $4 million a year. For the first five years, three-fourths of that will fund economic development projects in Lemay, Coleman said.
But some say casinos do the region more harm than good, and those people showed up Wednesday as well.
All the money that Pinnacle earns and pays in taxes comes from the pockets of St. Louisans, who lose it at the casino's 2,100 slot machines and 55 table games, they noted. And much of it, observed Don Cannon of south St. Louis County, will flow out of the region.
He pointed to a study from 2004 by gambling economist William Thompson, which projected that six St. Louis casinos would drain $140 million out of the local economy. Add another, Cannon said, and that number will only grow.
"There's no way we can come out ahead," he said.
But the commission wasn't there Wednesday to debate the merits of casino gambling. They were there to award a new license. And after touring River City on Tuesday, they were ready to do just that.
"I was in awe," said chairman Jim Mathewson. "It's a beautiful facility. Very well done."
It was that kind of meeting, full of kind words and handshakes. And while it was under way, no one mentioned the two other issues that are roiling the St. Louis gambling scene: a casino proposal for north St. Louis County, and the gaming commission's bid to close the President Casino downtown.
A group of developers have won local zoning approvals for a $350 million casino near the Columbia Bottoms, but they have not applied for a state gaming license -- because none are available. About 30 opponents of that plan showed up Wednesday, hoping to make their objections heard.
They were denied a spot on the agenda, but Mathewson did promise a public hearing in St. Louis County if the commission receives an application for a casino there.
Still, opponents found a way to make their point.
Lorin Crandall, clean water coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, noted that River City was a smart reuse of a polluted site, far smarter than building a casino in environmentally fragile conservation area -- near where the North County project would go.
The other issue that was only referenced sidelong was the President.
Less than a month ago, the same group of commissioners voted unanimously to strip the ailing riverboat of its license, citing its poor financial performance. But Wednesday, the President went unmentioned, save a few references to things that might happen "if a license opens up."
On Friday, Pinnacle told the commission it will fight the ruling. In a seven-page appeal, the company said that it has done nothing to cut offerings at the President since December 2008, when the state renewed its license for three years, and that stripping the license now is "unreasonable and an abuse of discretion."
Jerry Riffel, an attorney for Pinnacle, said he expects a gaming commission hearing on the matter in April or May, and that it could yet wind up in court.
But that is down the road. Wednesday was all about celebrating a new casino in St. Louis.
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