By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
Apparently the name didn't worry Joseph and John Streckfus when they bought a 90-foot-wide railcar ferry in 1937 called the Albatross. Within five years, they had converted the ship into the largest cruising riverboat in the world and renamed it the Admiral.
But over the years, the boat lived up to its maiden name, first by becoming unseaworthy and then by hosting the financial collapse of one business venture after another. In a style more flamboyant than that of most St. Louis institutions, the boat escaped all potential. It embarrassed the city's mayors, enraged its own debtors and eluded the high-level profits its owners, investors and stockholders seek to this day.
Through it all, the city of St. Louis stood by, bailing bucket in hand. Most of the millions of dollars the city poured into keeping the boat afloat came after a string of bad business decisions on the various owners' parts. But these days, with the boat operating as a casino, it is the victim of mismanaged politics, urban decay and the pending approval of a second casino in South County, which, if approved, could sink the boat for good.Mike Schafersman's large frame moves through the 74 steel-plated watertight compartments that make up the hold of the S.S. Admiral with a grace earned from years of experience walking on boats. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard for more than two decades before taking this job on the city of St. Louis' only casino, which means he traverses these steely warrens so many times every day, he's oblivious to the violent sound of river water rushing just 6 inches beneath his feet.
Ordinarily, Schafersman's title would be captain. He's responsible for the boat's operations, security and housekeeping, but because the Admiral's engines were removed years ago, Schafersman's title is more grounded in the corporate world: director of safety and facilities.
Schafersman knows the boat's physical attributes as well as his own. He knows it pulls about 1,700 amps of electricity at all times, that the air-conditioning units draw more of it than the thousands of lights and the slot machines combined. He knows the thickness of the steel plate (three-eighths to a half-inch thick), the number of new decks of cards used every day (300), the number of surveillance cameras used to catch cheats (more than 400). He knows that the pockets of employees working in the money-counting rooms are sewed shut and that if a dollar bill drops onto a black-tiled floor it shows up better than it would if the tile was white.
Schafersman advances toward the stern of the 93-year-old boat through a series of hatches that separate compact rooms of pipes, wires, wetsuits, oversized tools and air-conditioning units. Because the walls of half-inch steel plate that connect in a web of monotonous gray make up four-fifths of the boat's weight, the vessel's center of gravity is extremely low. Eleven of these chambers could flood without affecting the boat's buoyancy.
The low-set weight distribution also means that when Schafersman is looking for a place to cut out tonnage, this is where he comes. "Boats are like people -- as they get older, they put on weight, and weight is not a good thing for a boat," Schafersman says, adding that every 60 tons loaded on board causes the Admiral to sink 1 inch. "You have to keep it trim so it doesn't go down further and further until water is coming up over the decks.
"You're constantly monitoring the weight that comes on or off the boat," he says rolling his eyes toward the ceiling that separates the hull from the three upper decks where 1,230 slot machines, 59 gaming tables, 18 bathrooms, one restaurant and a full house of gamblers complicate his maintenance of equilibrium.
In the past several weeks, the boat's steering gear and rudders have been removed to gain valuable empty space, but Schafersman, captain of this engineless steel husk, is quickly running out of ideas. "They're always wanting to bring additional coins on here, but that adds a lot of weight," he says. "I try to tell them to keep the coins down, because every time they bring more coins on, I have to figure out some way to lose weight somewhere else."
But as Schafersman decides which vestiges of the Admiral's structure must go, his financial counterparts in the company desperately try to figure out how to add more people, more gaming devices, more money, more weight. If they don't, and don't soon, the boat will sink, no matter what physical history Schafersman manages to scrap.
That's because the Admiral's urban location, combined with a shortage of parking and Missouri's strict regulations on gaming, condense into the kind of tonnage the boat can't handle right now.
At the end of fiscal year 2000, which ended in February, the Admiral's parent company, President Casinos Inc., reported hefty net losses on its three gambling boats, following even larger losses the year before. Then in March, the company reported to stockholders that it was unable to make interest payments on outstanding debt and was trying to sell its most profitable casino, in Davenport, Iowa, as a result.
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."
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.
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.
To get from the hull of the Admiral to Deck A, Schafersman climbs up a narrow flight of steps, which emerge in the middle of a long, rectangular wet bar. Around the bar in every direction are rows of nickel slots, where many of the day players, mostly senior citizens, sit one on one with their machines. The tokens collected from the machines are sent to something called the "hard-count room," where access is restricted because this is where 10 wrapping machines spin, count and roll the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of weight that Schafersman worries about every day.
He's optimistic, though. The Missouri Gaming Commission is in the process of changing its rules to allow casinos to use bill validators on its slots. So instead of buying tokens, gamblers will be able to play with real money, which, with any luck, will be in the form of paper, thereby lightening the load. In preparation, the casino is building a new "soft-count room" up on Deck B.
"It's not operational yet," Schafersman says as he looks into the new room through heavy plate glass. "There are still a lot of cameras being installed. It will also be monitored auditorially, and all of the employees that work in here will have their pockets sewn shut."
He stands and stares at the room hopefully. "A lot of money will be counted in that room," he says.
If anyone's affair with the Admiral could be called torturous, it was that of the man who was mayor of St. Louis from 1981-92, Vincent Schoemehl.
"I had never met John Connelly, never talked to him," Schoemehl says. "He was going to take the Admiral up to Pittsburgh to be part of a permanently moored operation up there, but there were editorials being run every other day about how horrible this was for the city and that somebody has to do something about it."
When he bought the Admiral from Streckfus Steamers in 1979, Connelly was president of Gateway Clipper Fleet Inc. After buying the boat, he moved it to Kentucky for repairs. He then planned to take her up to Pittsburgh, but editorials in St. Louis' dailies wailed that part of the city's heritage was floating upriver. "So I called him," Schoemehl says, "and we talked him into keeping the Admiral here in St. Louis. That's how it all got started."
As Schoemehl calls up history, the story unfolds about how 27 investors anted up $1.5 million to buy the boat back. The group, calling themselves Admiral Investors Inc., included William E. Maritz; Fred Weber Inc.; Emmett Capstick, then vice president of Community Federal Savings & Loan; the law firm of Gallop, Johnson & Neuman; S. Lee Kling; Lieberman Advertising; and Pasta House co-owners John Ferrara, J. Kim Tucci and Joe Fresta.
The investors then transferred ownerboat of the Admiral to S.S. Admiral Partners, with Six Flags Admiral Corp. (a subsidiary of Six Flags Corp.) as its general partner. The plan was to renovate the boat and turn it into an entertainment complex. Despite the fact that a 1982 study had concluded that the only way to determine the condition of the boat's hull was to put it in dry dock, the investment group decided not to bother. They brought the Admiral back to St. Louis from Kentucky, came up with $26 million in private money and received a $5 million federal urban-renewal grant through the city of St. Louis.
"At the time, there was every reason to believe that it was going to be successful, because Six Flags was a very successful operator of entertainment destinations," Schoemehl says. "But the effort to make it into an entertainment complex was, how shall we say, ill-fated."
By 1985, the investors' investment wasn't looking so promising. One of them, J. Fleischer Sr., owned a construction company that the group hired as the project manager, even though the company had no experience renovating a boat. In addition to major construction mistakes and labor problems, the group had to replace much of the boat's structural steel -- a condition that could have been determined ahead of time had the boat been dry-docked. S.S. Admiral Partners then raised an additional $3.3 million from a special limited partnership and got loans from the city of St. Louis totaling $2.5 million.
When the Admiral reopened in 1987, more than a year behind schedule, the investors had spent nearly $37 million for renovations, including $7.5 million in public money -- almost $11 million more than originally estimated.
Inside, the boat had taken on the characteristics of an overwrought peacock. There were shops, music venues and a restaurant with a $2 million kitchen and a $100,000 sign in gold-and-silver lettering. One of the big attractions was the Birdland Theater, featuring an "audi-animatronic show" of 14 animated birds that, at a cost of more than a half-million dollars, played in a Dixieland band. There was also Lindy's Cabaret and the Mississippi Theater. The main ballroom was now a music hall, complete with strolling cigarette girls, and a $100,000 Bandathon playing mechanical band instruments stood in the foyer. A 1987 article in the Midwest Motorist magazine noted of the Admiral: "She's got a new look and a new purpose. And typical of a 'new woman' of the '80s, she's a product of what some might describe as a rigorous fitness routine. She's been transformed into the Jane Fonda of steamships."
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.
Things were also looking up for Connelly, who, in early 1991, bought back the Admiral from the investors for $4 million.
He had already opened the President Casino in Davenport, Iowa, and by late 1991 it was garnering rave reviews as the country's first and largest floating gambling boat. Along with three other casinos in the area, the President added more than $1 million to Iowa's state coffers in the first two months of operation.
In addition to the Admiral and the President (which was originally moored in St. Louis), Connelly also owned eight other boats in Pittsburgh; one under construction in Louisiana; another boat to open in Biloxi, Miss.; hotels in Davenport and Pittsburgh; and the Belle of St. Louis, the Tom Sawyer, the Huck Finn, the Becky Thatcher and the Robert E. Lee on the St. Louis waterfront.
Connelly's ownership of the St. Louis boats wasn't coincidental. He had already poured big money into lobbying the Missouri Legislature to pass a bill allowing the November referendum and was, by mid-1992, spending even more -- about $2 million -- to lobby the public into voting yes. At the same time, Connelly registered a new company, President Casinos Inc., with the Securities and Exchange Commission and announced in the prospectus that the riverfront operations in St. Louis were "losers" that were only "holding the fort" until the November vote. "The company is maintaining these operations at current levels solely to keep its position in St. Louis should gaming be approved," the prospectus stated.
Connelly's need to hold the fort was based on the city's decision to lease up to five spots on the downtown riverfront for floating casinos. At Schoemehl's request, the Board of Alderman approved leasing three of them to Connelly and was considering bids from six other casino operators for the remaining two. Schoemehl favored one in particular, Jumers Hotels of Peoria, Ill., and had ordinances drafted and ready to go. The Jumers bid, an $80 million proposal, included two casinos and a hotel on the Landing.
The elections in 1992 and '93, however, changed everything. Schoemehl lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Mel Carnahan in August, and voters approved riverboat gaming in November. In March of 1993, Freeman Bosley Jr. was elected the first African-American mayor of St. Louis, defeating three other candidates, including then-Aldermanic President Thomas A. Villa, who was supported by Connelly.
"We had already drafted ordinances (to allow for the Jumers leases) and got them sent over to the Board of Aldermen," Schoemehl says. "We would have had five boats and the Casino Queen across the river. And there would have been so much revenue coming off those boats, you would have had an entire entertainment-convention district, and that would have sparked the development of a convention hotel. The Gaming Commission was prepared to issue those licences.
"But JoAnn Wayne, who was chairman of the (aldermanic) ports and street committee, said she didn't want to pass the legislation while I was still mayor," Schoemehl continues. "She said this was very significant legislation, and she wanted the first African-American mayor of the city to sign it. So it got hung up from November to April."
In the meantime, riverboat gambling exploded across the country. In 1992, President Casinos' gambling boat in Biloxi opened, and the company began its transformation of the Admiral into a casino after six years of abandonment. By the end of the year, President Casinos was the first riverboat gambling company to go public. It got $18.50 per share in its initial offering. Riverboat gaming was hot. By June 1993, the stock price had shot up to $49.13, the company's revenues tripled from $4 million to $12 million in the previous fiscal year, and the Admiral wasn't even open for business yet.
Across Missouri, casino revenues called to lawmakers like a potential royal flush. In Illinois, the Alton Belle had opened in 1991 and was doling out $15 million a year in state and local taxes. Within six months of opening in 1993, the Casino Queen had handed over more than $12 million. Analysts predicted the St. Louis market would support $1 billion in annual gambling revenues.
Everyone wanted a seat at the game, and casino companies offered mouthwatering jackpots to every player at the table. "Back then, people were even talking about a casino in downtown Maryland Heights," Schoemehl says. "It was a joke. Who ever heard of downtown Maryland Heights back then? Everyone was laughing about it."
When Bosley took office in April '93, there were so many offers for casinos in St. Louis city that he threw out Schoemehl's gaming-district plan and reopened the river to the highest bidder.
Promises made to the city by developers included sunken amphitheaters, marinas, museums, movie theaters, moving sidewalks, skywalks, elevated monorails, winter gardens, recreation centers, dolphin shows and condominiums with lakes. Donald Trump even offered to build a 28-story hotel built entirely of gold and glass. But as bid after luscious bid for casinos poured onto Bosley's desk, the city took a chance and upped the ante. It asked for bigger and better hotels. It wanted more parking, more amenities, more taxes from the developers.
Then the hammer fell, and fell hard. Early in 1994, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down certain provisions in the state's new gambling laws and ruled that a constitutional amendment would have to be added by voters to allow games of chance. On April 5, 1994, voters rejected the amendment, which meant games such as slot machines would not be allowed on Missouri's boats.
On the day of the referendum, April 5, President Casinos' stock closed at $17.87 per share. One day later, it dropped to $12.50. By the end of the year, it was down to $8.
For the city, the vote against games of chance meant that negotiations for casinos, hotels and dolphin shows went from a rolling boil to a slow simmer. Then, as talks wore on, broke off and wore on again, more and more casinos saturated the national market, and the riverboat-gaming industry started a slow, anticlimactic decline.
Despite the failed referendum, the Admiral opened in late May 1994. Without slot machines, the boat missed out on almost 70 percent of its intended income, and for the next six months, Connelly claimed, the Admiral lost an average of $1 million per month. A second referendum was held in November, though, and after voters approved games of chance, the Admiral almost immediately tripled its attendance.
But by then it was too late. At the end of the company's fiscal year in February '95, it reported a net loss of $58 million. Stock prices for the company plummeted nearly 63 percent, from $16.75 in February 1994 to $6.25 in February 1995.
In order to shore up its financial mudslide, the company decided the Admiral needed more parking and more foot traffic and, in late 1995, asked the city of St. Louis to allow it to move the boat north to Laclede's Landing. At the time, the Bosley administration was negotiating with one of the last casino developers still willing to talk -- a group called St. Louis Entertainment Ventures, which wanted to open a casino just north of Eads Bridge on the Landing -- and in early 1996 told President Casinos that a $5 million deposit would be required before the Admiral could be moved.
Some say Bosley's requirement was retaliation for Connelly's support of Villa against Bosley in 1992. Others say it was because the Gaming Commission wouldn't approve the Entertainment Ventures project with the Admiral so close. For his part, Bosley told the media that the city just wanted to make sure President Casinos had the financial solvency to sustain the move.
Whatever the reasons for the request (Bosley could not be reached for comment), President Casinos didn't accept the challenge and asked the city to build it a parking facility instead. The city declined. The next year, in 1997, Bosley lost his re-election bid in March to Clarence Harmon; by August, Entertainment Ventures had withdrawn its proposal. The Admiral was alone on the riverfront now, but it still had no parking.
Despite Harmon's apparent friendliness toward helping the Admiral stay afloat, the Admiral was collecting 18 percent less in gross revenues from its customers than it had the year before. It wasn't alone. The Casino Queen's wins were down 11 percent, Station Casino St. Charles was down 14 percent and the Alton Belle was down 21 percent. The gambling business had clearly peaked.
By the end of fiscal year 1997, President Casinos reported a net loss of $8.8 million, and gaming analysts were predicting that many of the smaller riverboat casinos that had gone public early in the 1990s would soon fall. "The saddest of these stories is President Casinos Inc.," a September report by the International Gaming and Wagering Business publication stated. "PREZ, which traded at $30 a share in 1993, now trades at slightly more than 40 cents."
In 1998, the company filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that the city's share of the tax on adjusted gross receipts -- $4.1 million since its opening -- was not being used by the city "in providing necessary services for the public visiting an excursion gambling boat" as required by state law. This caused the company "irreparable harm," the suit claimed, because it "decreased business, revenues and the potential for a perception that the public safety is not being adequately protected."
The city denied the allegations and claimed all of the money had been spent on safety purposes "in proximity" to the boat's location. The city then theorized that "the plaintiff is guilty of unclean hands in bringing this action in that plaintiff seeks to use the instant action for an improper use i.e., to obtain leverage in an unrelated dispute with defendant City over plaintiff's request that the city provide additional parking for plaintiff's customers."
Then, in late 1998, the final blow came when President Casinos was de-listed from NASDAQ because its tangible assets didn't meet the market's minimum requirement of $4 million for listing. The once-high-rolling company was now being traded on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board at around 50 cents per share. At the end of the 1998 fiscal year, the company posted another $14 million net loss. It hadn't shown a profit since 1994.
This January, the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance allowing the city to subsidize the Admiral's move with $3 million. The city will give the boat $600,000 up front and will make annual payments during the next eight years, up to $3 million. The loan will be repaid from the Admiral's admission tax.
In exchange for the loan, President Casinos agreed to drop the lawsuit it filed against the city in 1998.
"The city benefits to a tune of about $6 million a year on the rents and taxes the Admiral pays," says Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th), who sponsored the ordinance, "so we feel it's in our best interest to make them better operators and to give them a better location."
The total cost of the move, says Zweifel, the company's CFO, will be close to $7 million. But in order to finance its part of the project, President Casinos had to come up with $4 million in cash, and right now President Casinos doesn't have a lot of cash. The company's stock has declined steadily during the past year, hitting a 52-week low on April 5 of 18.34 cents. At the end of last year, the company reported net losses of $6.6 million, even as its total liabilities shot up from $27 million at the beginning of 1999 to $91 million by year's end. Stocks are now trading around 65 cents.
Then in March, two months after the city agreed to loan the company $3 million, President Casinos announced that it would be unable to make interest payments on more than $100 million worth of outstanding debt to bondholders.
"Every year for years, we've been paying $13 million (in interest) to the bondholders," Zweifel explains. "This year, basically what we've done is tell the bondholders we had to do something in St. Louis, and instead of paying the bondholders their money, we're basically using it for capital improvements in the St. Louis Admiral operation."
To pay back its debt, the company is trying to sell its most profitable casino, the President in Davenport, Iowa. Zweifel also says the company is looking at refinancing. "The company believes that the value of its properties and assets substantially exceeds the amount of its debts, and the bondholders know that," Zweifel says. "The last thing a bondholder would want to do is close down the Admiral, because then all you have is an old boat and some slot machines. As an ongoing business, it's worth $40 million or $50 million a year. It's not a good situation, but it's something we had to do to maintain our market share in St. Louis."
As for Schoemehl, he looks back on the whole affair with regret on several levels.
"If they would have handed out five licenses downtown right away, there is no way the Gaming Commission would have handed out licenses in St. Charles and Maryland Heights," Schoemehl says. "As a result, we fractured the industry, and people who would have otherwise come downtown for gaming and entertainment have no need now.
"I can tell you this: What we don't need in downtown St. Louis right now is another high-profile failure."
It's hot on top of the Admiral. Midmorning sun shoots off the sixth deck's steel skin in bright lasers of heat as wind off the river whips around the enclosed pilothouse. When Schafersman needs a break from his nine-hour workday, this is where he likes to come.
"When we move, there will be a tow boat on the stern and one on the head," he says, looking north to an open berth where the Admiral will sit when the river drops to less than 10 feet so the boat can fit under the Eads and Martin Luther King bridges "The physical move shouldn't take more than half-a-day, but then we have to hook all of the systems up, and that will take three to five days. That's the hardest part of it all."
The city's ordinance approved in January says that if the casino fails once it has moved, the city has one year to pay off the $3 million loan for the boat's relocation before the bank can foreclose and take over the Admiral's riverfront lease. Harmon spokesperson, Chuck Miller, says the city has no need to worry about the parent company's downturn. "We've been assured and have a letter from the Admiral that the financial problems of the parent company will not affect the operation of the Admiral in any way."
Zweifel says the subsidiary that operates the Admiral is 100 percent current on its bills and that last year the boat generated a positive cash flow of about $6 million. And from his point of view, the Admiral is less in danger of closing because of the parent company's problems than it would be if the Missouri Gaming Commission approves the opening of a casino in South County.
"It could be devastating," Zweifel says.
"We estimate that we get approximately 44 percent of our business from South City and South County," Zweifel says. "So if you build a $150 million facility down there, it's going to take away a major portion of our business. There is not a major untapped market down there. It's not like there are 550,000 people who don't have access to a casino."
From the city's point of view, the most damaging location would be in Lemay, a mere 10-minute drive south of downtown St. Louis. "I think the casino in Lemay would have an adverse effect on the Admiral, without question," says Aldermanic President Francis Slay. "It would provide competition that, based on the financial issues of the company, I'm not sure the Admiral would handle very well."
The Lemay casino is being proposed by developers whose shareholders include a shopping list of Democratic heavyweights and corporate bigwigs: former Anheuser Busch president Dennis P. Long; Glen Slay, third cousin to Aldermanic President Francis Slay; Paul Novelly of Apex Oil; Pasta House owners John Ferrara, J. Kim Tucci and Joe Fresta; Frank Bommarito; Charles Gitto; and Teddy Busch.
Needless to say, the project is being supported by the St. Louis County Council and County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall because it would benefit St. Louis County.
What St. Louis officials worry about, though, was detailed in a May 2 letter to the commission from Harmon. "We are asking the Commission to recognize that as goes the President, goes the City of St. Louis and goes the State of Missouri," Harmon wrote. "The backers of the Lemay application may see some short-term benefits if it is approved. However, these benefits will be more than outweighed by the disastrous long-term ramifications. The President's economic viability is essential if the City of St. Louis is going to successfully battle the plethora of problems facing all older urban areas. If we are not able to win this battle in the City of St. Louis, our neighbors may find the problems spreading in their own backyards."
State Sen. William "Lacy" Clay (D-St. Louis) sponsored an amendment during the legislative session that would have, if passed, required the commission to give priority to casino proposals in counties that do not have any casinos. "The Admiral is the only boat in the city, and they're struggling now," Clay says. "If a new boat goes to South County, it will just take more of their customers away, and the city will be hurt as a result."
But Clay's amendment didn't make the law books, and the commission is still evaluating the prospects. Says Harold Bailey, the commission's spokesman: "We consider each one in terms of what would be in the best interest of the state."
Schafersman, at times, has fantasized about moving his office into the pilothouse, long abandoned and gutted since the engines were removed years ago from the boat. He will oversee the boat's relocation this year, a move designed to resuscitate the Admiral one more time.
It will be the closest to piloting the boat that Schafersman will ever come.