Developers of a Lemay casino have political muscle on their side. But the School Sisters of Notre Dame are betting on a higher power.

Up the rutted cinder track that winds by the deserted chemical plant, a deer forages among piles of concrete debris. Once this place teemed with industry; the smokestacks belched and the tipples roared. But it has been more than 20 years since the freight trains and the barges stopped here. In their absence, the dark hulks of abandoned storage tanks still stand in stark relief against the sky, vestiges of another time. It would be wrong, though, to assume that the former National Lead property has been forgotten.On the contrary, the site is now in the thoughts and prayers of hundreds, if not thousands, of residents of South St. Louis County, including more than 120 School Sisters of Notre Dame who live next door to the abandoned property. The focus of their concern is a plan that calls for a casino to be built on 30 acres at the south end of the 80-acre tract. It worries Sister Ruth Speh.

"We've been there for 105 years," says the 72-year-old nun. "This is a place where people pray and meditate. So to have a casino less than 500 feet away is really a desecration. It wouldn't fit. It's just not right."

Members of the Roman Catholic order, which originated in Bavaria, have lived and worked at the convent in Lemay since 1895, when Mother Bonaventure Wagner and six religious sisters moved onto the Grand View estate and renamed it Sancta Maria in Ripa (St. Mary on the Bank).

Over the years, the School Sisters have taught at more than 111 parochial schools in the area. Nearly 500 students currently attend Notre Dame High School, located next to the convent on Ripa Avenue. The sisters run a preschool, tutorial center and Head Start program at the same location, and they offer their sanctuary as a religious retreat for laypeople. In addition, the nuns allow their conference facility, the Maria Center, to be used for meetings of nonprofit organizations. With about 90 percent of the nuns over 60 years of age, the Notre Dame complex also serves as a retirement home.

It's impossible to measure in dollars and cents the kind of stability that the School Sisters of Notre Dame contribute to society. It's safe to say, though, that they are an integral part of the South St. Louis County community of Lemay. Their mission and the future of the surrounding area, however, are now both threatened by powerful political and business interests.

In recent months, the conflict has escalated into a pitched battle between church and state, with the nuns being joined in their opposition by an ecumenical coalition and a group of small-business owners from the South County area. Prayer vigils have been formed, letter-writing campaigns initiated and pulpits politicized in a community that is not noted for taking up activist causes. The sisters' most notable ally in their David-and-Goliath fight is the Rev. Gary Thomas of St. Luke's United Methodist Church on Telegraph Road. Thomas has organized South County First, an anti-casino group that has attracted well over 100 citizens to its hastily called forums.

The battleground in this holy war is confined mainly to 30 acres of the former National Lead property, which is owned by St. Louis County. But the controversy over the issuance of the next state gambling license is already beginning to spread. Military veterans are angry about another proposal to anchor a gambling boat near Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, and farther downstream, merchants in the Jefferson County town of Kimmswick are up in arms about plans to build a casino there.

At all these locations, the opponents cite the same litany of problems they associate with gambling, including increases in bankruptcies and addiction. The difference in the Lemay site is that the proposal by Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos Inc. has the blessings of key Democratic politicians, including St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall and Councilman Jeff Wagener, who represents South St. Louis County. Also weighing in is U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-3rd), who has urged state gaming officials to put the state's next casino in his congressional district, which includes Lemay. Gephardt hasn't specifically endorsed Ameristar's proposal, however.

Westfall and Wagener say that, as the landowner, St. Louis County could gain as much as $5 million in annual lease payments if the Ameristar proposal is approved. But they are more reticent about how the proposal would benefit influential contributors -- politically connected businessmen like former brewery executive Dennis P. Long and restaurateur J. Kim Tucci -- who control the lease on the property.

The casino proposal has stirred up a rebellion in this normally staid quarter of South St. Louis County. As a decision by the Missouri Gaming Commission approaches, the Notre Dame sisters are in the vortex of a political controversy that is having an unsettling effect on the entire South County area.

The proposed casino site, as plotted on a map, appears as a large empty space, hemmed in by the Mississippi River, the River Des Peres and a dense grid of streets to the west. On the backstreets of Lemay, the Mississippi River can't be seen as much as it is felt. What the map fails to reveal, too, is the small cemetery where some of the sisters of Notre Dame are buried. The nuns have called this corner of the St. Louis waterfront their home for a long time. Their convent adds a certain dignity to the surrounding working-class neighborhood, which seems like a forsaken company town with its small frame houses clustered together.

The origins of the unincorporated community date back to the early 18th century, when French settlers founded the village of Carondelet immediately to the north, across the River Des Peres. "Lemay" is a corruption of "Lemais," the name of the family that, beginning in 1834, operated a ferry south of St. Louis on the Meramec River. Lemay Ferry Road, one the area's thoroughfares, remains as a reminder of those early days.

The booming economy of the 1990s, in many ways, has bypassed Lemay. Employment in the area was traditionally tied to the ironworks, shipyards and chemical plants that first clustered along the riverfront in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As those industries have died, almost half the local workforce has taken up low-paying sales and service-sector jobs. As an older suburb, in proximity to the city, the area has some of the same urban characteristics as St. Louis, with one notable exception -- the population is almost entirely white. Almost 38 percent of the households in Lemay have an income of less than $25,000, according to census data, and more than 35 percent of the residents lack a high-school diploma.

One of the most devastating losses to the Lemay economy came in 1978, when National Lead closed its doors. The property has remained vacant ever since as county officials have searched for ways to redevelop the site. In 1987, the St. Louis County Port Authority purchased the property for almost $2 million. The county initially wanted to promote the development of a barge-transfer facility at the site but abandoned that plan altogether after a study in the mid-1990s indicated it would cost $50 million to raise the site from the floodplain as required by federal law. With industrial redevelopment ruled out, the Port Authority began considering other options, focusing much of its attention on possible recreational uses for the property. The long-term design for the site still includes a marina and possibly a lodge, but the more immediate plan calls for an RV park, bicycle trails and wetlands restoration.

Such wholesome recreational pursuits still fall short of the county's primary objective of stimulating economic development. After voters approved riverboat gambling in 1994, the county saw the potential profit in developing a casino at the site. The next year the county reached an agreement with Showboat Inc., one of the first companies to show interest in operating a casino at the location. Showboat, which has since been acquired by Harrah's Inc., invested heavily in the project, paying a nonrefundable $500,000 fee to hold the lease and another $750,000 as a security deposit. In addition, the company shelled out almost $5 million to cover the costs of preliminary planning and site preparation, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

But all the money that Showboat poured out couldn't convince the Missouri Gaming Commission to issue another gambling license for the St. Louis area at that time, because the agency claimed the market was then saturated with casinos. Showboat finally decided to cut its losses and bailed out of the project in 1997. FutureSouth Inc., a group of local businessmen and lawyers that had acted as the impetus for the original venture, then reacquired the lease from the county. Eventually the group's efforts to market the property attracted the attention of Ameristar, which operates casinos in Nevada, Iowa and Mississippi.

Denny Long, a former president of the Anheuser-Busch Cos., is the leading partner in FutureSouth. Long has consolidated his control by buying out about half of his partners. The remaining group of investors includes attorneys Norman Dilg and Richard A. Barry; restaurateur Charles Gitto; Kim Tucci, John P. Ferrara and Joseph Fresta Sr., owners of the Pasta House Co.; and Glen Slay, son of Democratic kingpin Eugene Slay.

Under its pact with Showboat, FutureSouth would have maintained a 20 percent ownership of the casino. The current deal allows the local partners to share a percentage of the profits, but Ameristar would be the sole owner of the facility. Long told The Riverfront Times that the current financial agreement with Ameristar is confidential.

FutureSouth's investors have been major campaign contributors, channeling their dollars to powerful St. Louis-area politicians. But that isn't unusual. As casino gambling has spread to more than half of the states, money from the industry has poured into the political process. The Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported in July that campaign contributions from gambling interests have increased by 400 percent in just six years -- up from $1.1 million in 1992 to $5.7 million in 1998. About $3.8 million of that total came in soft-money contributions, a loophole in campaign-finance laws that allows limitless contributions to party committees. The soft-money approach lets gambling interests -- and other political contributors -- buy influence on both the state and federal levels without divulging which candidates may directly benefit from their donations. When soft money is funneled through more than one committee, the trail becomes even harder to follow.

In some cases, the influence-peddling is flaunted openly, as when Gephardt accepted a $250,000 check in May from Mirage Resorts of Las Vegas on behalf of the Democrats. During the 1997-98 election period, Gephardt's campaign received more than $58,000 from gambling interests.

On the local level, individuals with interests in gambling have also been generous givers. For example, from 1989 until 1995, Westfall pulled in $130,000 in campaign contributions from FutureSouth partners. But the county executive notes that he stopped taking money from individuals or corporations as soon as they became involved in pursuing a state gaming license. "I have not accepted one penny from any gaming interest, from the day that gaming became an issue in St. Louis County," says Westfall. Before legalized gambling was established, Westfall says, he received donations from "personal friends" who later competed for casino licenses, but those contributions have had absolutely no influence on his decisions as county executive. "There's no connection there at all," he says.

Westfall contends that his support for Ameristar is based solely on the merits of the company's proposal. He, like Wagener and other backers, says the casino will be a financial godsend to the county and an economic-development engine for Lemay.

Under the terms that remain to be finalized between the county and Ameristar, the initial five-year rent formula requires the gambling operator to pay the county 4 percent of its gross adjusted income or $3 million -- whichever amount is bigger -- during its first year of operation. The minimum guarantee goes down by $200,000 each succeeding year. Estimates indicate that the Lemay casino could rake in as much as $125 million in the first 12 month of operations, providing the county a tidy $5 million from rent alone. Additional revenues from boarding passes and other taxes could increase the county's take to $10 million.

Development of the site, the county says, would also mean fixing the environmental damage caused by years of National Lead's operations. Although it offered employment security and bolstered the county tax base, the plant also contributed an unwanted byproduct from the day it began producing titanium in 1924. Chemical processes used to manufacture the paint pigment resulted in extreme air-pollution problems. During World War II, Lemay residents complained that air emissions from the plant caused their victory gardens to wither. The acrid fumes also blistered automobile paint and killed pet canaries. The high levels of sulfur dioxide escaping from the plant caused such an onslaught of respiratory illness that it prompted neighbors of the chemical operation to consider abandoning their homes.

The extent of the contamination still at the former industrial site is undetermined as of yet, but some asbestos is known to be present in the old titanium plant, and at least 10 storage tanks will have to be removed. So far, the county has amassed $1.3 million to correct the problems at the site and prepare it for future use, with funding coming from a variety of sources, including a $500,000 federal empowerment-zone allocation and $300,000 in state tax credits. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources will oversee the voluntary cleanup. All of the anticipated improvements, of course, would ultimately benefit any prospective casino operator. But if the state does issue Ameristar a license, the company would have to use its own cash for other infrastructure improvements.

FutureSouth's Long candidly admits that his goal of developing a casino is not altruistic but says that it would nevertheless benefit the residents of Lemay and the surrounding neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. "The trickle-down economics will just be overwhelming," Long says. "How often do you get an opportunity to get a $140 million capital infusion from a viable industry into an area? It's the equivalent of pulling in 100 small businesses. In one fell swoop, you've created a huge economic dynamic, which will help all the people in the area, not just keep things at status quo."

Ameristar spokesman Jeff Terp makes a similar pitch, saying his company's multimillion-dollar investment will create 1,500 full-time jobs for the South County area. "This is an area that needs economic development," says Terp. "If you look at the success that gaming has brought other geographic areas, we think this is a phenomenal opportunity. We have to look no further than East St. Louis to see how the crime rate dropped, how economic development has come in, how city services now can function."

New investment. Environmental cleanup. More jobs. And if that's not enough, Councilman Wagener even promises to make sure that new tax revenues generated by the casino will somehow flow primarily to South County residents. "There's a commitment by the county executive and me that we keep the lion's share of those funds in South County," the councilman says. "That's our word. If we don't do what we say, then people have the right to kick us out."

Wary of such verbal assurances, opponents express skepticism about Wagener's ability to deliver. "There's nothing in the lease that commits Ameristar to any taxes, to any school-district support, to any fire- district support," says Thomas of South County First. "The money is going to go to Clayton (the county seat). Clayton doesn't have a history of taking care of South County. We can't even get sidewalks in Lemay for our children to go to school."

The question of how the pie will be split up is overshadowed by the more fundamental issue of whether casinos are an asset or a liability to the communities in which they do business. From this perspective, neither the sisters of Notre Dame nor the members of South County First see the gambling industry as the answer to the problems that beset their community. Indeed, they say, opening a casino in a neighborhood -- their neighborhood -- will cause more woe than it's worth.

"We're fighting gambling on Main Street in South County," says Thomas, leader of South County First. "Up until this point, gambling has been primarily placed in high-tourism areas. Now it's being placed in a residential area."

There are five casinos in the St. Louis area. Only one, Station Casino in St. Charles, is located near any residences. But the population density there doesn't compare with that in Lemay, where more than 18,000 people live. "Even if there is a solid economic investment, at what cost?" asks Thomas. "If a person goes down to the boat and becomes addicted and loses everything they've got, if their family breaks up and the family has go on public welfare, who pays for that mistake? It's the citizens."

That's the same argument the sisters of Notre Dame are making to state gaming officials.

In a letter to Missouri Gaming Commission executive director Clarence "Mel" Fisher, one of the Notre Dame nuns succinctly expressed the order's objections: "A gambling casino would do a disservice to the Lemay area, a very old and relatively poor community whose small businesses do not need competition from a big enterprise, and whose people do not need the enticement of hoping to make ends meet through gambling, which more often makes them losers." The missive bears the letterhead of the Catholic Education Office of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Terp, the Ameristar spokesman, says that the outcry from a few nuns does not represent public opinion on this issue. "The people of this community want gaming," Terp says. "They want economic development. As one person said to me, she thinks it's extremely hypocritical that the sisters are complaining about gaming when they have their big festival every year where they play bingo. They have raffles. They allow kids to gamble. They have drinking. So why is it all right for them to do it but not all right for someone else to do it?"

Both Terp and Wagener argue that only a small minority of the Notre Dame sisters actually oppose the casino.

But Speh disagrees. "Do you think nuns, on the whole, support gambling?" she asks. "I've talked to our council, and so have all the other sisters. We know they're behind us all the way." As evidence of the sisters' solidarity, Speh provides copies of petitions opposing any new St. Louis-area casinos, which contain the signatures of 92 nuns. Some of the sisters who signed the petitions listed addresses other than the convent, but most of them reside there.

Speh views Terp's bingo-related accusations as yet another canard. "Do you know anybody who has mortgaged their home over bingo or who has committed suicide over bingo?" she asks. "I don't go to bingo myself because I think it's a boring game. But the money they spend there could be lost in a minute on a gambling boat. Years ago, we had bingo at the high school. That was to raise money to keep the high school going."

In November, after opposition to the casino had begun to mount, Ameristar suggested that the board of directors of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce visit Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the company operates a riverboat casino. Six of the Chamber members accepted the invitation but wisely chose to pay their own travel expenses. After its trip, the Chamber decided to endorse Ameristar's proposal.

"We met with economic-development people, businesspeople in the area, people from the schools, people from the Iowa Gaming Commission, and everything we heard was amazingly positive," says Barbara Hehmeyer, executive director of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce. "The economic-development people gave us facts and figures on how the gaming in Council Bluffs has had a positive impact on the community. They cited that there were 66 new restaurants in the three years since gaming has come to the area."

But Forrest Miller, a dissenting director of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, suspects that his colleagues have been misled. Miller notes that Ameristar's Iowa casino is across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb., which he says is being negatively affected by gambling. "They didn't take them over to Omaha to see the devastation that they've done to the restaurant industry over there," Miller says. The former president of the Missouri State Restaurant Association is concerned that his own business, the Royale Orleans Banquet Center on Telegraph Road, will suffer a similar fate if the casino opens.

"I think the Chamber of Commerce has done some wonderful things," Miller adds. "But on this particular issue, they slam-dunked this so fast, so hard, that there have got to be a lot of more questions that need to be investigated before you can approve anything like this. They've bought into this grandiose plan and they think it's going to benefit the community, but there is no way it can do anything but transfer everything out of our community. I'm a gambler. I go to Las Vegas. I'm not saying people shouldn't gamble. What I'm saying is that bringing this enterprise into our community is going to destroy our community."

A Lemay casino would attract area residents more than tourists, Miller says. With only a finite amount of discretionary income available from residents of moderate means, small restaurants and other businesses would fail because they couldn't compete with the casino industry, which can afford to offer discounts on food and beverages. "Their strategy is to come into a local community and fleece it," Miller says. "They are not investing $130 million (or more) to sit there and not take money out of this economy."

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.

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.

From the rear door of the Maria Center, where the Notre Dame sisters operate their Head Start program, Speh gazes out on the proposed casino site. Beyond the rusty cyclone fence, the field leading to the river has turned tawny with the coming of winter. She wonders what will happen to the property that has remained vacant for so long.

"One of my concerns is that they are stopping creativity," Speh says. "There have to be creative people in the St. Louis County Council who can think of other uses for that land besides a gambling boat." Speh believes that the residents of Lemay are of the same mind.

"No casino should be put in a residential area. I'm not the only resident I'm talking about. There are so many good people out there. We've been passing out petitions, asking them personally. I've collected over 300 petitions, and in that collection I'll bet that I haven't had more than 15 people who said they want it. I'm working every day trying to get more.

"I don't have an ax to grind, except for the fact that it's wrong for the community. It's a selfish industry. They don't think of the common good. They only think of their own money. A casino won't lift Lemay up. It will tear it down."

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