PRAYING AGAINST THE ODDS

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

On the local level, individuals with interests in gambling have also been generous givers. For example, from 1989 until 1995, Westfall pulled in $130,000 in campaign contributions from FutureSouth partners. But the county executive notes that he stopped taking money from individuals or corporations as soon as they became involved in pursuing a state gaming license. "I have not accepted one penny from any gaming interest, from the day that gaming became an issue in St. Louis County," says Westfall. Before legalized gambling was established, Westfall says, he received donations from "personal friends" who later competed for casino licenses, but those contributions have had absolutely no influence on his decisions as county executive. "There's no connection there at all," he says.

Westfall contends that his support for Ameristar is based solely on the merits of the company's proposal. He, like Wagener and other backers, says the casino will be a financial godsend to the county and an economic-development engine for Lemay.

Under the terms that remain to be finalized between the county and Ameristar, the initial five-year rent formula requires the gambling operator to pay the county 4 percent of its gross adjusted income or $3 million -- whichever amount is bigger -- during its first year of operation. The minimum guarantee goes down by $200,000 each succeeding year. Estimates indicate that the Lemay casino could rake in as much as $125 million in the first 12 month of operations, providing the county a tidy $5 million from rent alone. Additional revenues from boarding passes and other taxes could increase the county's take to $10 million.

FutureSouth's Dennis P. Long
Jennifer Silverberg
FutureSouth's Dennis P. Long
The Rev. Gary Thomas, leader of South County First: "We're fighting gambling on Main Street in South County."
Jennifer Silverberg
The Rev. Gary Thomas, leader of South County First: "We're fighting gambling on Main Street in South County."

Development of the site, the county says, would also mean fixing the environmental damage caused by years of National Lead's operations. Although it offered employment security and bolstered the county tax base, the plant also contributed an unwanted byproduct from the day it began producing titanium in 1924. Chemical processes used to manufacture the paint pigment resulted in extreme air-pollution problems. During World War II, Lemay residents complained that air emissions from the plant caused their victory gardens to wither. The acrid fumes also blistered automobile paint and killed pet canaries. The high levels of sulfur dioxide escaping from the plant caused such an onslaught of respiratory illness that it prompted neighbors of the chemical operation to consider abandoning their homes.

The extent of the contamination still at the former industrial site is undetermined as of yet, but some asbestos is known to be present in the old titanium plant, and at least 10 storage tanks will have to be removed. So far, the county has amassed $1.3 million to correct the problems at the site and prepare it for future use, with funding coming from a variety of sources, including a $500,000 federal empowerment-zone allocation and $300,000 in state tax credits. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources will oversee the voluntary cleanup. All of the anticipated improvements, of course, would ultimately benefit any prospective casino operator. But if the state does issue Ameristar a license, the company would have to use its own cash for other infrastructure improvements.

FutureSouth's Long candidly admits that his goal of developing a casino is not altruistic but says that it would nevertheless benefit the residents of Lemay and the surrounding neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. "The trickle-down economics will just be overwhelming," Long says. "How often do you get an opportunity to get a $140 million capital infusion from a viable industry into an area? It's the equivalent of pulling in 100 small businesses. In one fell swoop, you've created a huge economic dynamic, which will help all the people in the area, not just keep things at status quo."

Ameristar spokesman Jeff Terp makes a similar pitch, saying his company's multimillion-dollar investment will create 1,500 full-time jobs for the South County area. "This is an area that needs economic development," says Terp. "If you look at the success that gaming has brought other geographic areas, we think this is a phenomenal opportunity. We have to look no further than East St. Louis to see how the crime rate dropped, how economic development has come in, how city services now can function."

New investment. Environmental cleanup. More jobs. And if that's not enough, Councilman Wagener even promises to make sure that new tax revenues generated by the casino will somehow flow primarily to South County residents. "There's a commitment by the county executive and me that we keep the lion's share of those funds in South County," the councilman says. "That's our word. If we don't do what we say, then people have the right to kick us out."

Wary of such verbal assurances, opponents express skepticism about Wagener's ability to deliver. "There's nothing in the lease that commits Ameristar to any taxes, to any school-district support, to any fire- district support," says Thomas of South County First. "The money is going to go to Clayton (the county seat). Clayton doesn't have a history of taking care of South County. We can't even get sidewalks in Lemay for our children to go to school."

The question of how the pie will be split up is overshadowed by the more fundamental issue of whether casinos are an asset or a liability to the communities in which they do business. From this perspective, neither the sisters of Notre Dame nor the members of South County First see the gambling industry as the answer to the problems that beset their community. Indeed, they say, opening a casino in a neighborhood -- their neighborhood -- will cause more woe than it's worth.

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