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Government, Politics & Issues

Opponents of north county casino press their case

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2010 - Opponents of a proposed casino in north St. Louis County near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers brought out two new weapons in their fight Monday: an economic impact study and a letter against the project from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

At a news conference on land just a few miles from the site of the proposed $450 million project, the coalition known as Save the Confluence presented the study it commissioned from John R. McGowan, a professor of accounting at Saint Louis University.

McGowan concluded that because six casinos already operate in the St. Louis area, "an accurate analysis of the incremental new revenue generated from an additional casino would lead to the conclusion that most revenue generated would be a cannibalization of existing revenue."

Comparing the proposals for a casino either in north St. Louis County or in north St. Louis city near the Chain of Rocks Bridge with applications from Cape Girardeau or the Sugar Creek area of Kansas City, McGowan said that "the addition of a seventh casino in the St. Louis metropolitan area would generate the least incremental new revenue for the region and the state."

A call to a spokesman for the proposed casino seeking reaction to the study was not returned.

McGowan also cast doubt on other studies of the issue, saying that flawed methodology has led to wrong conclusions.

"No doubt," he wrote, "economic studies will be produced for each location touting the many jobs and economic output that will be created for Missouri if the casino is located in their particular location. Policymakers should keep in mind the tendency for these studies to exaggerate the proposed economic benefits of gaming.

"This is especially true when the market is already saturated as it is in St. Louis. The goal of this study is to provide important input for the Missouri Gaming Commission they might not otherwise receive from the casino applicants themselves. By considering the factors enumerated in this study, policy makers can preserve the rich natural resource assets existing in the region and the state."

Those natural resources have been one of several prongs of the arguments made by Save the Confluence, along with economic arguments against another casino in the area and the ills that gambling in general bring.

Members of the opposition hope to persuade the Missouri Gaming Commission that the only casino license available in the state -- up for grabs since the President casino on the downtown riverfront closed earlier this year -- should not be granted to either of the proposed sites on the Mississippi River.

The commission has scheduled hearings later this month -- Sept. 27 in Cape Girardeau, Sept. 28 at 9 a.m. at the Renaissance Airport Hotel in St. Louis County for the two St. Louis area proposals and Sept. 29 in Sugar Creek.

LeAnn McCarthy, spokeswoman for the commission, said Monday that after it hears testimony and receives an economic analysis from the Department of Economic Development, the commission hopes to award the license by the end of the year.

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Members of the various organizations making up Save the Confluence coalition continued to press their argument Monday that the casino is best located outside of the St. Louis area. At a small outbuilding a few miles from the proposed casino site near the confluence -- a barn originally built as a hog house -- Tom Becherer told a news conference that the site makes no sense for a multimillion-dollar development.

Recalling the floods of 1993, he said the area was under 30 feet of water, with sandbags needed to keep the rising tide from inundating the barn.

"We have always made a living off the land, using the resources given to us," said Becherer, adding that his family has been farming on the site for four generations, back to the 1880s. "We feel it's very important to conserve those resources.

"The idea of putting that large of a development on a flood plain like that is ridiculous."

With background music proclaiming the joys of rollin' on the river and lamenting builders who would pave paradise to put up a parking lot, coalition members repeated their contentions that the casino project would disturb a major flyway for migrating birds and upset a delicate ecosystem that may never recover.

"If we build a casino there, what's there now will be lost," said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "But in 25 years, that building may be just an empty wasteland. We have enough of those around here, but we don't have enough of this.

"We're just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic here. It's time to realize that fewer casinos can actually make more revenue. The Gaming Commission doesn't like to grant licenses where a community doesn't want a casino, and this community doesn't want it."

The coalition also released letters from filmmaker Burns, saying that "the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi has a value that transcends history. It is a sanctuary for wildlife. And it is a place of beauty, a sanctuary for the soul, where we can refresh our spirits and reconnect with the natural world."

He said that films he has produced, particularly his recent series on the national parks, "have convinced me that the sheer physicality of this great continent we inhabit has played a crucial role in what kind of people and nation we became."

Barbara Fraser, chair of the St. Louis County Council, has also come out against the project, joining County Executive Charlie Dooley. In a letter to James Mathewson, chairman of the Gaming Commission, she said she does not believe the St. Louis area can support another casino, adding that "the increase in revenues at the newly opened River City Casino have come at the expense of the six other existing casinos in the region."

Fraser, who is running for the state Senate in November, also noted the possible environmental harm to the confluence area, saying that "$150 million have been invested in the past 10 years by our state and federal agencies to create 11,000 acres of new public open space including more than 100 miles of trails and the construction of various interpretive centers and museums along the shores of the Mississippi and Missouri."

Former lawmaker John Loudon, who chaired the legislature's joint committee on gaming, said he is not convinced that another casino would mean more revenue for the area or for the state, particularly when you figure in the social service costs of gambling.

"Every time someone goes to the casino and loses money," Loudon told the news conference, "we're all picking up the pieces."

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