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.

But the 1 million customers that were expected the first year turned out to be just 327,000 by the eighth month of operation, and Union Electric cut off power to the Jane Fonda of steamships in November 1987 for an overdue bill of $61,000. The investors asked Schoemehl for another loan. He refused, so food on board the boat was donated to charity, and the Admiral closed her doors.

By then, in late 1987, the Admiral investors was facing almost 270 creditors, most of whom agreed to partial repayments if Connelly came on board to manage operations and pitch in $1.5 million of his own money to boot. He agreed and sailed into the project, adding a disco called Vibrations and a round of highly publicized boxing matches. Schoemehl seems to remember "Hawaiian flame-throwers," too. The boat's offerings were soon labeled "themed entertainment" by travel writers across the country, on a par with places like Dollywood, Opryland and Hersheypark.

But attendance was still stale by late 1988, the boat was losing an average of $100,000 a week and a consortium of banks threatened to foreclose because the investors had failed to make payments on more than $10 million in loans. Connelly, frustrated by what he called shoddy workmanship and irresponsible financing, announced he was leaving the company. "I'm gone," he stated in published reports. "They can have their boat."

As S.S. Admiral Partners collapsed, Schoemehl headed into his third-term election in the spring of 1989, taking a lot of heat for lending the company so much money. The investment firm of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. tried to restructure the Admiral's debts so that it could be sold, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ranked the Admiral investment by the city as one of Schoemehl's biggest blunders. "The Admiral, at least, can be towed away," the editorial noted.

Despite the fact that Connelly was one of the largest contributors to his successful re-election campaign, Schoemehl soon admitted that the city's investments in the Admiral had been a mistake, and the city sued S.S. Admiral Partners in mid-1989 for $209,000 in unpaid personal-property taxes.

One week later, however, the city forgave the $7.5 million in grants and loans in exchange for a percentage of proceeds from the Admiral's sale.

Meanwhile, the Iowa and Illinois state legislatures approved riverboat gambling, which set the stage for the Admiral's upcoming act as a casino and for Connelly's entrance into the world of riverboat gaming.

"Absent all of those editorials, I never would have been able to assemble 27 investors," Schoemehl says in retrospect. "This was not something I invented. This was something the two public voices, the two newspapers, were calling for.

"The culminating opportunity would have been if a gaming district were created on Laclede's Landing that would have tied all of the Washington Avenue district together. It could have been the trigger for really consolidating downtown activity with Laclede's Landing.

"That was the plan," Schoemehl says. "But that didn't happen. That's where we missed the boat."

As Schafersman cuts across Deck A, a dark-suited man rushes out of the on-board Missouri Gaming Commission office and sprints up a flight of stairs to the main gaming room.

"That's a gaming agent," Schafersman says, "and it looks like he's in a hurry. He has his handcuffs out."

Schafersman trots up the stairs to follow but slows when he reaches the thickets of slot machines that stand on the edge of an expansive open plain of roulette, craps and blackjack tables. As Schafersman follows the gaming agent across Deck C's landscape, customers, unaware of trouble, display several mutations of superstition: One woman wears gardening gloves to protect her hands from the tokens and has placed a small plastic statue of an animal next to her cup of coins. Another woman plays three slot machines at the same time. In one corner, a young couple laughs as the man massages the slot handle and asks it whether it loves him. He touches it with his forehead, then with his foot.

The gaming agent and several suited men with walkie-talkies stand at one of the blackjack tables, where, Schafersman is told, one woman pushed another woman and both were asked to leave. "Once in a while, something like this happens," Schafersman says, shrugging.

More problems occur for Admiral customers if they win at least $1,200, for they must show positive proof of identification to claim their prizes. It's a law unique to Missouri, says Mike Ryan, executive director of the Missouri River Boat Gaming Association, an industry group, who adds that Illinois boats, including the Casino Queen and Alton Belle, have no such requirements.

"We have a lot of customers who are arrested and hauled away," Ryan explains. "If they have warrants of any sort, they can even be extradited to adjacent states. You can have an outstanding warrant for something serious, but more than likely you just neglected to pay some outstanding parking tickets and they've issued a bench warrant. We have seven members of the Missouri Highway Patrol on each of our boats, and they arrest a lot of people. Word gets out."

By late 1992, when Missouri voters approved riverboat gaming, Schoemehl, who was now running for governor, had engineered a plan to open five casinos on the riverfront and a hotel on Laclede's Landing, positioning the city to become the gaming mecca of the Midwest.

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