The Albatross

St. Louis has a long and tortured history with the Admiral, home of the President Casino, but the city is about to gamble another $3 million to keep it afloat. It's a risky bet.

In addition to growing debt, shrinking market share and stock prices languishing somewhere near the price of a slot-machine token, the Missouri Gaming Commission is considering two new casinos in South County, one 10 miles south and the other 13 miles south of the Admiral. As the company's executive vice president and chief financial officer, Jim Zweifel, sees it, this means a potential loss of 44 percent of the boat's customers. "It could be devastating to our business. We don't know if we can survive."

In the eyes of some, the Admiral has reached the point of founder-or-float.

"The boat doesn't really float -- it displaces," Schafersman says as he stops at a workbench on his way to the stern. He picks up a flashlight and holds it balanced over the bench between two fingers. "Like if you put this flashlight on the water, the forces from underneath would push upward and displace the water to hold it up. That's why we don't want too much weight."

Jim Zweifel, vice president and chief financial officer, President Casinos Inc., says a new casino in South County "could be devastating to our business."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Zweifel, vice president and chief financial officer, President Casinos Inc., says a new casino in South County "could be devastating to our business."
The Admiral is being moved about 1,000 feet north from its current location to attract more business.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Admiral is being moved about 1,000 feet north from its current location to attract more business.

Much of the Admiral's current trouble is the accumulation of nine decades of political, structural and financial debris. Over the years, the Admiral has gone through five owners and six major renovations. It has been a ferry, an excursion boat, an entertainment complex, a disco and a casino. It has weathered dozens of lawsuits, debt collections and political ambushes. It has been hit by floods and runaway barges. Its ambitions have died one by one of blunt trauma. But as Vincent Schoemehl, former mayor of St. Louis and one of the Admiral's biggest political benefactors, says: "History is not just a sequence of events, it's an accumulation of events."

So as one investor after another wrote the Admiral off as a big, bad debt, the boat's history lured still more onto her decks. It charmed city, state and federal politicians into handing over more than $10 million in grants, loans and unintended donations, and its potential success, always on the horizon, keeps them bailing despite signs of even worse weather.

Currently the city of St. Louis is giving the boat $3 million to help move it 1,000 feet north from its location at the foot of the Gateway Arch. The reasoning, say city officials, is that the casino provides millions of dollars in tax revenue and rent, and it's a sound investment for the city to boost the boat's competitiveness with more parking, more foot traffic and more protection from floods.

If the casino goes under, though, the city will have one year to repay the loan before the bank takes over the Admiral's mooring lease.

Meanwhile, Schafersman battles the weight problem. When he reaches the stern, several workmen nod silent but smiling acknowledgments. Schafersman comes down here three or four times every day to keep an eye on their work, which today consists of removing un-needed bars and framing to cut back on still more weight.

"But I'm running out of options," he says.

A 1940s souvenir book advertised the Admiral as a "ship of luxury, of gaiety, of glamour." It was, according to its owners, Streckfus Steamers, "Superlatively Modern!" There was the Three-Ring-Circus tea room, which featured African-American waiters dressed as clowns and chairs fashioned as lions, tigers, leopards, seals, camels and giraffes "with expressions ranging from gay coyness to stern displeasure." There was also a "modern fluorescent-lighted, chromium-trimmed popcorn and news stand" and a snack bar selling hot dogs for 10 cents.

The Promenade of the six-deck steamer promised that "clean, clear river breezes make eyes sparkle and cheeks rosy-hued." The level rooftop guaranteed passengers a taste of the South of France or Biarritz. But the star of the boat -- besides air-conditioning that delivered the cooling effect of 600,000 pounds of ice daily -- was the Ballroom on Deck B, where 2,000 dancers were surrounded by hand-painted zodiac signs and little white lights that formed the constellations. Pullman chairs and chrome-and-glass cocktail tables decorated the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom. The powder rooms on Deck B included the Sonja Room, with a snowflake motif, and the Glamour Room, with wall-to-wall full-length mirrors and yellow walls that "flattered" a woman's complexion.

These days, everything on the Admiral is still designed to filter reality.

On the main gaming deck, there are no windows, no telephones, no clocks on the walls. The ringing and pinging of more than a thousand slot machines drowns out most conscious thought, and the heavily monitored air is kept crisp and cool, somewhere near early autumn. The lights -- masses of phosphorescent baubles that flash from every available inch of space -- invalidate day, night and everything in between as the smell of money hovers everywhere.

"This used to be the ballroom," says Zweifel as he looks down from the mezzanine, now cluttered with slot machines, onto the main floor of fully occupied slots and gaming tables. Zweifel, formerly executive director of FANS Inc., the group formed to bring the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis, took his position with President Casinos in 1997. The company, based in St. Louis, owns two other riverboat casinos -- in Davenport and in Biloxi, Miss. It started operating the Admiral as a St. Louis casino in 1994, after Missouri voters legalized gambling on the water.

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