Developers of a Lemay casino have political muscle on their side. But the School Sisters of Notre Dame are betting on a higher power.

The origins of the unincorporated community date back to the early 18th century, when French settlers founded the village of Carondelet immediately to the north, across the River Des Peres. "Lemay" is a corruption of "Lemais," the name of the family that, beginning in 1834, operated a ferry south of St. Louis on the Meramec River. Lemay Ferry Road, one the area's thoroughfares, remains as a reminder of those early days.

The booming economy of the 1990s, in many ways, has bypassed Lemay. Employment in the area was traditionally tied to the ironworks, shipyards and chemical plants that first clustered along the riverfront in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As those industries have died, almost half the local workforce has taken up low-paying sales and service-sector jobs. As an older suburb, in proximity to the city, the area has some of the same urban characteristics as St. Louis, with one notable exception -- the population is almost entirely white. Almost 38 percent of the households in Lemay have an income of less than $25,000, according to census data, and more than 35 percent of the residents lack a high-school diploma.

One of the most devastating losses to the Lemay economy came in 1978, when National Lead closed its doors. The property has remained vacant ever since as county officials have searched for ways to redevelop the site. In 1987, the St. Louis County Port Authority purchased the property for almost $2 million. The county initially wanted to promote the development of a barge-transfer facility at the site but abandoned that plan altogether after a study in the mid-1990s indicated it would cost $50 million to raise the site from the floodplain as required by federal law. With industrial redevelopment ruled out, the Port Authority began considering other options, focusing much of its attention on possible recreational uses for the property. The long-term design for the site still includes a marina and possibly a lodge, but the more immediate plan calls for an RV park, bicycle trails and wetlands restoration.

Sister Ruth Speh, at the cemetery used by the School Sisters of Notre Dame: "To have a casino less than 500 feet away is really a desecration."
Jennifer Silverberg
Sister Ruth Speh, at the cemetery used by the School Sisters of Notre Dame: "To have a casino less than 500 feet away is really a desecration."
Ameristar's Jeff Terp says a casino will attract jobs to Lemay.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ameristar's Jeff Terp says a casino will attract jobs to Lemay.

Such wholesome recreational pursuits still fall short of the county's primary objective of stimulating economic development. After voters approved riverboat gambling in 1994, the county saw the potential profit in developing a casino at the site. The next year the county reached an agreement with Showboat Inc., one of the first companies to show interest in operating a casino at the location. Showboat, which has since been acquired by Harrah's Inc., invested heavily in the project, paying a nonrefundable $500,000 fee to hold the lease and another $750,000 as a security deposit. In addition, the company shelled out almost $5 million to cover the costs of preliminary planning and site preparation, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

But all the money that Showboat poured out couldn't convince the Missouri Gaming Commission to issue another gambling license for the St. Louis area at that time, because the agency claimed the market was then saturated with casinos. Showboat finally decided to cut its losses and bailed out of the project in 1997. FutureSouth Inc., a group of local businessmen and lawyers that had acted as the impetus for the original venture, then reacquired the lease from the county. Eventually the group's efforts to market the property attracted the attention of Ameristar, which operates casinos in Nevada, Iowa and Mississippi.

Denny Long, a former president of the Anheuser-Busch Cos., is the leading partner in FutureSouth. Long has consolidated his control by buying out about half of his partners. The remaining group of investors includes attorneys Norman Dilg and Richard A. Barry; restaurateur Charles Gitto; Kim Tucci, John P. Ferrara and Joseph Fresta Sr., owners of the Pasta House Co.; and Glen Slay, son of Democratic kingpin Eugene Slay.

Under its pact with Showboat, FutureSouth would have maintained a 20 percent ownership of the casino. The current deal allows the local partners to share a percentage of the profits, but Ameristar would be the sole owner of the facility. Long told The Riverfront Times that the current financial agreement with Ameristar is confidential.

FutureSouth's investors have been major campaign contributors, channeling their dollars to powerful St. Louis-area politicians. But that isn't unusual. As casino gambling has spread to more than half of the states, money from the industry has poured into the political process. The Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported in July that campaign contributions from gambling interests have increased by 400 percent in just six years -- up from $1.1 million in 1992 to $5.7 million in 1998. About $3.8 million of that total came in soft-money contributions, a loophole in campaign-finance laws that allows limitless contributions to party committees. The soft-money approach lets gambling interests -- and other political contributors -- buy influence on both the state and federal levels without divulging which candidates may directly benefit from their donations. When soft money is funneled through more than one committee, the trail becomes even harder to follow.

In some cases, the influence-peddling is flaunted openly, as when Gephardt accepted a $250,000 check in May from Mirage Resorts of Las Vegas on behalf of the Democrats. During the 1997-98 election period, Gephardt's campaign received more than $58,000 from gambling interests.

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