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.

It's a familiar refrain. The casino industry produces nothing, say opponents, but they are, nevertheless, quite efficient in siphoning off disposable income that would be spent elsewhere. "Casinos like to argue that they increase business, but a lot of businessmen in that area are concerned," says Steve Taylor, a lobbyist for Casino Watch, an anti-gambling organization. "The concern is based on the fact that the casino will provide cheap food and drinks to attract customers. It's not going help local businesses; it's going to be in direct competition with local businesses.

"Just because there's a lot of money changing hands doesn't mean it's good for the community," Taylor says. "Is it an easy way to raise tax revenue without a vote? Yeah, that's one of the appeals of it. But there's no guarantee that the money will go specifically to Lemay. Unless it's part of the lease agreement or a statute, there's no reason to believe that."

From Taylor's perspective, the opening of a casino in Lemay would create a lose-lose scenario. He alludes to recent studies to buttress his opinion.

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.

A pro-gambling study released two years ago, for example, estimated that Missouri casino revenue totaled $549 million in 1996. Approximately 45 percent of that total, or $265 million, would have been spent elsewhere in Missouri if legalized gambling did not exist in the state, according to the report, which was commissioned by Civic Progress, the leading business organization in St. Louis.

In rebuttal, casino opponents issued their own findings. The report, published by the United States Gambling Research Institute, estimated that legalized gambling's economic costs might offset the gains, if increases in bankruptcies, unpaid debts, check fraud and embezzlement are considered. When these private- and public-sector costs are factored into Missouri's 1996 gambling totals, the state economy could have actually lost as much as $139 million, according to the anti-gambling study.

Despite the opposition, Ameristar has gained acceptance of some Lemay officials by presenting itself as a source of new revenue.

This potential cash cow has lured the Hancock Place School District and the Lemay Fire Protection District to endorse the casino. But Jim Stonebraker, a Republican elected official of the fire district, voted against the proposal. "It seems to me what St. Louis County officials are doing is giving away Lemay in the name of economic development," Stonebraker says. "The casino people have not given any guarantees that we (the fire and school districts) are actually going to collect any kinds of taxes from them. They gave us a bunch of figures, but to me, what I've seen so far, it looks like the figures are cooked -- because they're coming from St. Louis County and Ameristar."

Stonebraker contends that the promises that Ameristar is making to gain support are illusory. He likens the red-carpet treatment that Ameristar rolled out for the Lemay Chamber of Commerce in Council Bluffs to a Potemkin village -- something that appears impressive but lacks substance. The term refers to Grigori Potemkin, who constructed elaborate fake villages for the tours of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia in the late 18th century.

Closer to home, the fire-district official says that Lemay on the Move, the citizens' group that supports the casino proposal, is not really a grassroots organization. Sandy Parker, the co-chair of the ad hoc group, is also a director of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Burns, her counterpart, is a political ally of Wagener, Stonebraker says. Originally Lemay on the Move was called PEOPLE (Positive Engine of Prosperity for Lemay Ever-after), and the phone number that the group listed was the same as Ameristar's.

When asked whether PEOPLE used Ameristar's phone number, Terp says, "Yeah, for about a week, until they were able to get a phone line set up, we took messages for them. Since they were a pro-gaming group, we didn't see anything wrong with that."

Had Ameristar invited the Lemay Chamber of Commerce to visit its Vicksburg, Miss., casino instead of Council Bluffs, its board of directors might have come away with a different opinion of the gambling operator. In late October, around the same time that Ameristar's office here was busy fielding calls for the Lemay citizens' group, a jury in Magnolia, Miss., awarded $3 million in damages to a property owner and a casino developer who claimed that Ameristar and two other defendants had stymied their efforts to get a state gaming license by unfairly influencing the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

The developer and landowner accused two casino operators in Vicksburg, Miss., Ameristar and Harrah's, and the Deposit Guaranty National Bank of derailing their plans to build a gambling facility on the Big Black River. A fourth party in the case, Isle of Capri, which is vying for license to operate a casino near Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis County, reached an out-of-court settlement in the Mississippi case. Had the proposed Mississippi gambling operation been permitted, it would have had the advantage of being located much closer to Jackson, the state's largest city. In a videotaped deposition shown to jurors, Craig Neilsen, Ameristar's president and chief executive officer, testified that he had asked two Mississippi bankers to help stop the proposed Big Black River development. Neilsen claimed that he had made the request not to stop competition but out of concern for Vicksburg's economy.

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