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.

"We're fighting gambling on Main Street in South County," says Thomas, leader of South County First. "Up until this point, gambling has been primarily placed in high-tourism areas. Now it's being placed in a residential area."

There are five casinos in the St. Louis area. Only one, Station Casino in St. Charles, is located near any residences. But the population density there doesn't compare with that in Lemay, where more than 18,000 people live. "Even if there is a solid economic investment, at what cost?" asks Thomas. "If a person goes down to the boat and becomes addicted and loses everything they've got, if their family breaks up and the family has go on public welfare, who pays for that mistake? It's the citizens."

That's the same argument the sisters of Notre Dame are making to state gaming officials.

School Sisters of Notre Dame have lived and worked in Lemay for 105 years.
Jennifer Silverberg
School Sisters of Notre Dame have lived and worked in Lemay for 105 years.

In a letter to Missouri Gaming Commission executive director Clarence "Mel" Fisher, one of the Notre Dame nuns succinctly expressed the order's objections: "A gambling casino would do a disservice to the Lemay area, a very old and relatively poor community whose small businesses do not need competition from a big enterprise, and whose people do not need the enticement of hoping to make ends meet through gambling, which more often makes them losers." The missive bears the letterhead of the Catholic Education Office of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Terp, the Ameristar spokesman, says that the outcry from a few nuns does not represent public opinion on this issue. "The people of this community want gaming," Terp says. "They want economic development. As one person said to me, she thinks it's extremely hypocritical that the sisters are complaining about gaming when they have their big festival every year where they play bingo. They have raffles. They allow kids to gamble. They have drinking. So why is it all right for them to do it but not all right for someone else to do it?"

Both Terp and Wagener argue that only a small minority of the Notre Dame sisters actually oppose the casino.

But Speh disagrees. "Do you think nuns, on the whole, support gambling?" she asks. "I've talked to our council, and so have all the other sisters. We know they're behind us all the way." As evidence of the sisters' solidarity, Speh provides copies of petitions opposing any new St. Louis-area casinos, which contain the signatures of 92 nuns. Some of the sisters who signed the petitions listed addresses other than the convent, but most of them reside there.

Speh views Terp's bingo-related accusations as yet another canard. "Do you know anybody who has mortgaged their home over bingo or who has committed suicide over bingo?" she asks. "I don't go to bingo myself because I think it's a boring game. But the money they spend there could be lost in a minute on a gambling boat. Years ago, we had bingo at the high school. That was to raise money to keep the high school going."

In November, after opposition to the casino had begun to mount, Ameristar suggested that the board of directors of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce visit Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the company operates a riverboat casino. Six of the Chamber members accepted the invitation but wisely chose to pay their own travel expenses. After its trip, the Chamber decided to endorse Ameristar's proposal.

"We met with economic-development people, businesspeople in the area, people from the schools, people from the Iowa Gaming Commission, and everything we heard was amazingly positive," says Barbara Hehmeyer, executive director of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce. "The economic-development people gave us facts and figures on how the gaming in Council Bluffs has had a positive impact on the community. They cited that there were 66 new restaurants in the three years since gaming has come to the area."

But Forrest Miller, a dissenting director of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, suspects that his colleagues have been misled. Miller notes that Ameristar's Iowa casino is across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb., which he says is being negatively affected by gambling. "They didn't take them over to Omaha to see the devastation that they've done to the restaurant industry over there," Miller says. The former president of the Missouri State Restaurant Association is concerned that his own business, the Royale Orleans Banquet Center on Telegraph Road, will suffer a similar fate if the casino opens.

"I think the Chamber of Commerce has done some wonderful things," Miller adds. "But on this particular issue, they slam-dunked this so fast, so hard, that there have got to be a lot of more questions that need to be investigated before you can approve anything like this. They've bought into this grandiose plan and they think it's going to benefit the community, but there is no way it can do anything but transfer everything out of our community. I'm a gambler. I go to Las Vegas. I'm not saying people shouldn't gamble. What I'm saying is that bringing this enterprise into our community is going to destroy our community."

A Lemay casino would attract area residents more than tourists, Miller says. With only a finite amount of discretionary income available from residents of moderate means, small restaurants and other businesses would fail because they couldn't compete with the casino industry, which can afford to offer discounts on food and beverages. "Their strategy is to come into a local community and fleece it," Miller says. "They are not investing $130 million (or more) to sit there and not take money out of this economy."

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