Mehlville takes no stance on south county casino
The Mehlville School District has no official stance on a potential casino coming to south county — and it doesn't intend on ever having one.
Numerous Hancock Place School District administrators showed their support for Pinnacle Entertainment's proposed Lemay casino during a town-hall meeting last week. However, no Mehlville administrators spoke during the April 22 open forum that was attended by 750 people and took place in one of their district schools — Oakville Senior High School.
Nor did Mehlville administrators voice any opinions during a Feb. 4 casino hearing conducted by the St. Louis County Economic Council at Mehlville Senior High School.
While the Mehlville School District is happy to provide its buildings for the use of open forums, Superintendent Tim Ricker told the Call, "We have no official position on the casino. The board has not taken any action nor have they taken any position on the casino or it coming to our district."
The Mehlville Board of Education historically has remained neutral in economic development issues — the most recent being a tax-abatement proposal for Fendler Nursery and Garden Center, 1803 Lemay Ferry Road.
The board considered, but took no action last fall on a proposal that would have frozen $16,000 in real-estate taxes for the nursery, with board Secretary Marea Kluth-Hoppe contending that the school board didn't want to start a "snowballing effect" with the board's involvement in such matters.
"It's truly up to the Gaming Commission to make that decision," Ricker said. "Again, the district really hasn't taken a stance on it. And being the representative of the district, I haven't taken a stance on it either and won't because that's the way our district has handled all of these kinds of issues related to tax deferments, PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes), Chapter 100s — all of that kind of stuff.
"Although we do strongly encourage, again, economic development ... We educate kids and that kind of thing. They're (board members) position has always been that in these political kinds of things ... that they don't take an official stance,'' the superintendent added.
Speaking only for himself and not on behalf of the district, Ricker told the Call he acknowledges the potential economic benefits an area casino could bring to the district.
"From an economic standpoint, my position again is that we're looking for economic development in south county," he said. "Anything we can do to help our community develop a stronger economic base, I think that helps everybody ...''
Whether the Missouri Gaming Commission gives a license to Pinnacle Entertainment in Lemay or to Harrah's or Isle of Capri Inc. near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, Ricker said it looks as if the Mehlville School District will benefit to a certain extent.
However, he noted larger financial benefits could be reaped for the district if the Gaming Commission selects Isle of Capri or Harrah's — with a potential $3.2 million annual-revenue increase for the district based on a $300 million project.
"Now, if it's at the Lemay site, there's obviously no direct economic development to us in the district, but there will be residual economic benefits," he said.
A group of Beasley Elementary School parents recently formed an anti-gaming group, Kids First, some of whom spoke during last week's town-hall meeting. The group adamantly opposes the Isle of Capri or Harrah's proposals because of their proximity to Beasley Elementary at 3131 Koch Road.
Asked if a casino with proximity to a school, such as Beasley, would pose concerns for the district, Ricker answered, "It wouldn't be any different than any other large $30 million outfit that would go into that location ...
"But anything that would go in there on the other side of the street, with the renovation and everything that's been done to (Interstate) 255 and the Koch Road exits, we don't feel that it would be any different depending on what went in there,'' Ricker added.
Despite Mehlville's neutrality on the issue, three top Hancock Place School District officials spoke last week, giving Pinnacle their seal of approval for bringing a casino to Lemay.
Hancock Superintendent Ed Stewart faced the crowd last week, delivering a charismatic plea for more development in the Lemay area — claiming the Pinnacle proposal would be a step in the right direction for his district.
Though arguments earlier that evening had been posed discussing the "evils of gaming," Stewart noted that Lemay is not Las Vegas, Nev., and south county is not Atlantic City, N.J.
"The National Lead Site is a toxic ... wasteland and a dump," Stewart said. "Twenty-five years and that dump has been there. Nothing is ever going to go there. And now we've got a company coming in here willing to spend $10 (million) to $15 million to clean this up. And we're going to tell them no thanks? ... We don't have any jobs for people to work. We don't have a bowling alley. We don't have a mall. We've got one restaurant. We don't have any development. This is an opportunity for our school district and for our community to get up and be somebody and do something."
Gregg Fingerhut, Hancock assistant superintendent of schools, and Curriculum Coordinator Lisa Charles also spoke that night in support of the Pinnacle proposal.
"Lemay needs Pinnacle and south county needs Pinnacle," Fingerhut said, noting the potential $4.3 million in funds Pinnacle would set aside in an educational foundation benefiting all south county school districts.
Charles added the project would bring needed environmental remediation of the former National Lead site, asking County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, to not "pass up Pinnacle."
The April 22 town-hall meeting was sponsored by Campisi, R-south county. A final count of citizens who opposed or supported the Pinnacle proposal was not available when the Call went to press on Monday.
Besides taking sides of the issue, citizens also picked which side of the Oakville High gymnasium to sit on last week, based on whether they were for or against the Pinnacle proposal. Those who favored the proposal sat on the right side of the gymnasium, while those who opposed the proposal sat on the left.
Screaming matches interrupted several speakers' comments with citizens on both sides of the issue vocalizing their beliefs.
A roaring crowd also soared over the voice of Jane Wilkinson, who expressed her opposition to the Pinnacle proposal by belting out, "We want no casino in Lemay. No, we want no casino" to the tune of "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
Denny Hettenhausen, founder of Rally Against Gambling Expansion and an Oakville resident, didn't sing, but she did speak out against a Lemay casino.
"Development of Lemay? Yes, this is needed," Hettenhausen said. "Why not a casino? Because it's a quick fix with long-term consequences that just don't balance out. The jobs offered just aren't significant enough to support the damage that will follow. There is no guarantee or evidence that any school will benefit as promised by the casinos.
"The casinos know this. That is why they are trying to bribe the public with recreation and an aquatic center, moving theater and a bowling alley. They know the casino itself has nothing to offer. They know they will eat at our local economy like cancer. Family friendly? Harmless entertainment? We don't think so,'' Hettenhausen said.
She later asked Campisi, "Are we going to be prostituted? Are our councilmen going to sell us out in the name of taxes and short-term and low paying jobs?
Lynn LeBaube of Lemay said she did not want casinos involved in educational funds and she didn't want her children's education to be funded by "blood money" from gambling.
Robert Cannon of South County First, a south county anti-gaming organization, said he believed the $4.3 million in a potential education foundation would be "crumbs off the table" for local school districts because Pinnacle would be making much more money off the Lemay community.
An Oakville High sophomore, Christy Dixon noted that three deaths involving current and former Oakville students had occurred recently — all three involved traffic accidents.
"There would be more traffic from casinos," Dixon told Campisi. "... More people could die."
Other residents asked Campisi how much money would remain in the Lemay area compared to money that would be distributed to the rest of St. Louis County. Another resident asked how incorporation of south county at some point in the future would affect the distribution of casino revenue.
Carolyn Townes said she was skeptical of any money that casinos are promising south county school districts.
"If it is too good to be true, then it is ...," Townes said. "Do they really believe schools will get something for nothing?"
Still others remarked on Lemay's poor economic condition and how a casino could help matters.
A Lemay resident since 1967, Ben Kelly spoke in favor of the Pinnacle proposal because of its potential ability to revamp the casino's surrounding areas — help that Lemay desperately needs.
"It's pretty bad when taverns start leaving," he said. "You know it's a pretty depressed area."
Frank Heckler, president of both the Lemay Chamber of Commerce and the Lemay Optimists, asked "how can you allow those who oppose gaming on a personal basis" to stop a casino from coming to an area in such great need of funds?''