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Scott Raborn, forefront, of the Carpenter's District Council shows his support for Pinnacle Entertainment's casino proposal during last week's public hearing at Mehlville Senior High School. Alyson E. Raletz photo (click for larger version)

Hearing on gaming proposals draws about 1,000 south county residents

Residents turned out in full force during a public hearing last week to voice their opinion on two casinos proposed for south county.

During the Feb. 4 hearing, sponsored by the St. Louis County Economic Council, residents were able to raise concerns or offer support for the two gaming proposals — Pinnacle Entertainment's proposal for a casino at the former National Lead Site in Lemay or Isle of Capri Inc.'s proposal for an Oakville casino near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

The Economic Council estimated that about 1,000 people attended with 50 people speaking during the only hearing sponsored by the council in which residents could publicly address the issue before a Port Authority selection team was scheduled to announce its casino recommendation.

The committee, comprised of public officials and a member of the Lemay Chamber of Commerce, was scheduled to make the announcement Tuesday, Feb. 10 — after the Call went to press.

A multitude of citizens waved black signs at the hearing with, "Pinnacle Yes," in neon yellow, while others waved signs asking for "No More Casinos" and some held roses up in protest of a gaming presence in south county.

"First of all, given how emotional and passionate of an issue this is for many people either pro or con, I was pleased with how civil and respectful everybody was of one another. It speaks very well for everyone in south county," Denny Coleman, chief executive officer of the Economic Council and chairman of the casino selection committee, told the Call.

"People feel very passionately about the issue, I felt everyone handled themselves in a very positive fashion and obviously there were a lot more people there who were speaking for a specific proposal than against ... Even with the folks who were anti-gaming ... they thought it was a very fair hearing. That was our goal. We wanted to have a fair chance to express opinions."

About 15 people spoke in favor of the Isle of Capri proposal, while 11 people spoke against the proposal. Roughly 31 speakers supported the Pinnacle site, while four people opposed the Pinnacle site.

Also, 18 people spoke in opposition of gaming in general, while six people spoke supporting gaming in general.

"So, most of folks who spoke against casinos in south county were against gambling in general," he said. "... We were impressed with the overall turnout. It clearly was a big issue of jobs that would be generated from a casino. A lot of union reps and leaders felt strongly about that ... About 75 to 80 percent of the people in the room had expressed support for Pinnacle at Lemay."

With less than a week between the hearing date and the announcement date, Coleman said the selection team could successfully take public input into account before making a decision. He noted all committee members were present at the hearing and heard firsthand every speaker's comments.

Also to take into consideration was last week's announcement from Isle of Capri that it would increase its proposal to a $300 million project, raise its community development to the county from 2.5 percent to 3 percent, increase the size of its hotel and add other amenities.

Pinnacle did not make any changes to its proposal last week.

"We did not ask for any additional enhancements. We made it clear to companies anything they wish to submit as further explanation or enhancements up to the time of decision, we would consider," Coleman said. "This is a very competitive situation, the companies have a great deal at stake, and we are being open to enhancements, all which would increase benefits to the community, and the responsibility to the community."

Coleman said committee members would be digesting community input right up until the St. Louis County Port Authority meeting scheduled for Feb. 10.

"The community input was a valuable contribution and that contribution represents one of the elements we have to consider," he said.

Speakers representing organizations took up the majority of last week's 2.5-hour public hearing in the Mehlville Senior High School gymnasium.

Hancock Place School District Superintendent Ed Stewart spoke in favor of the Pinnacle proposal that would clean up and develop the former National Lead Site.

"I'm all for parks, but parks alone cannot generate revenue for school districts in south county," Stewart told selection committee members.

He said he supported the site that would appear in Lemay because it would bring much-needed revenue to his district, which depends heavily on state revenue. At least 60 percent of Hancock's budget, according to Stewart, is made up of state revenue.

Hancock Place students, 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches, would greatly benefit from the economic effects that a casino would bring to Lemay, Stewart said, noting that his district's per-pupil expenditure of $5,580 is the lowest in the area.

"We don't have the commercial properties that a shopping mall might bring in," he said, referring to nearby districts. "... The real benefit from non-gaming facilities would be overwhelming."

Dave Thompson of the South County Rotary Club referred to Isle of Capri's site at the Jefferson Barracks Bridge as a "no-brainer."

"The infrastructure is already there and the business people in the area are in favor of it," he said, adding that working people in south county want and need the jobs.

During her comments, Denny Hettenhausen, founder of Rally Against Gambling Expansion, criticized the way in which the selection team was formulating its decision, noting that no public speaking was allowed during a hearing in December in which the gaming proposals were presented to the public.

She also wanted to know why the team was making a decision in such "a hasty manner."

"It feels like there is no consideration in what is being said tonight," she said, pointing out that the hearing was conducted Feb. 4 and the selection committee's decision was scheduled to be announced six days later without ample time to analyze the public's input.

Scott Raborn of the Carpenter's District Council of St. Louis told the Call a lot of workers in building trades had been laid off recently and he supported a casino coming to south county.

"A job sounds good right now," he said.

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