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.

As an ongoing business, Zweifel figures, the 400-foot-long Admiral is worth between $40 million and $50 million a year to its owners. During the last fiscal year, the casino reported gross revenues of $66.8 million from gaming (after pay outs to winners), boarding fees and the sale of food, beverages and retail items.

In Missouri, casinos pay the state an 18 percent tax on adjusted gross revenue and pay the home dock city or county an additional 2 percent tax. In addition, they pay the state and local government each a boarding fee of $1 per admission. Last year, this meant the Admiral paid the state nearly $14 million in taxes and fees and the city of St. Louis another $5 million, including the boat's wharf lease.

But though the atmosphere on the boat suggests windfalls around every glitzy corner, the company's financials suggest a different sort of future. Compared with the other five casinos in the St. Louis area -- Station Casino St. Charles, Harrah's Maryland Heights, Players Maryland Heights and the Casino Queen and Alton Belle in Illinois -- the Admiral isn't faring so well. The Missouri Gaming Commission says the Admiral's market share of 9.4 percent in the St. Louis area ranks dead last. And in March, as the other area boats saw double-digit increases in monthly gross revenues over the same month in 1999 -- Alton Belle by 63 percent, Harrah's by 25 percent and the Casino Queen by 23 percent -- the Admiral gained just 2 percent.

The boat's location, says Zweifel, is one of the biggest reasons. Docked just north of the Gateway Arch, the Admiral is all but hidden from Laclede's Landing foot traffic by the Arch grounds' floodwall. Just one east-west street runs down to the boat, and parking is limited to an oblique plain of asymmetrical cobblestones otherwise known as the levee. When water levels rise each spring, even levee parking isn't an option anymore, which means that parking areas several blocks away must be used. Last year, the Admiral spent more than $2 million to rent parking space.

"This is a spot that the company picked, but almost immediately after that, it was understood that it wasn't a very good choice," Zweifel admits. "We are an urban casino. It's like the shopping-mall effect. We're like Famous-Barr or Dillard's in that it's very difficult to get people from West County to come downtown."

If they do find parking, the Admiral's customers must then negotiate steep buttes of cobblestones before they get on board. Once inside, they are held to a loss limit of $500, and they must follow Missouri law and use tokens -- not coins and bills-- which are later cashed in, in the slot machines. This means a customer must hunt down a token attendant, then exchange money for tokens, then play the tokens in a slot machine, then cash in the tokens when he or she is through. The Gaming Commission's annual report for last year states that the "inconvenience of the loss limits results in the export of Missouri gaming customers to other states and the loss of potential gaming revenues from local gamers and tourists." The report adds that although Missouri residents make up 76 percent of the metropolitan base of gamblers who patronize St. Louis area casinos, Missouri boats only capture 66 percent of the market.

Illinois law doesn't require its gamblers to use tokens. Nor does the state impose a loss limit. With the Casino Queen -- featuring acres of smooth, flat parking -- moored directly across the river in Illinois water, and with a MetroLink ride that can get people there from downtown St. Louis in less than three minutes, the two boats flank the Mississippi in point-blank competition. The Admiral is losing.

To help lure suburban residents, Zweifel says, the company will pump $11 million, including the $3 million subsidy from the city, into redecorating and relocating the Admiral by the end of the year. The redecorating means new carpeting, a paint job and 850 more slot machines. Zweifel hopes the move 1,000 feet north to Laclede's Landing will increase foot traffic, provide more parking and raise the level of the boat by 4 feet so that flooding won't hurt business as it does every year when the river rises and levee parking disappears.

But as the Streckfus brothers, who owned the boat until 1981, learned -- like the succession of those who followed -- pouring money into the Admiral doesn't guarantee success. By the 1960s, Streckfus Steamers was charging $1.25 for a four-and-a-half-hour excursion on the boat. "The Admiral offers you THRILLS GALORE .... FUN A'PLENTY," one advertisement stated.

Time, however, took its toll on the aging boat. By 1973, the Admiral had been refitted with diesel engines, but four years later, the U.S. Coast Guard deemed her hull unworthy. The Streckfus brothers, unable to cough up the $1.5 million needed for repairs, sold her to Pittsburgh businessman John E. Connelly for $600,000.

At the time, Connelly had already made a name for himself as a promotional guru, selling toasters and watches to banks, which awarded them to their customers. Then he turned to riverboats and started up a dinner-cruise line in Pittsburgh and New York. Then he bought the Admiral, which set up the pattern of failure that continued for the boat over the next two decades.

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