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Councilmen travel to Lemay for input on casino proposal


South county was the center of an unprecedented endeavor by county councilmen last week as they conducted a public hearing for residents to voice their opinions on Pinnacle Entertainment's proposal for a Lemay casino.

A Committee of the Whole meeting was reconvened May 6 at Hancock Elementary School — within walking distance of the proposed casino at the former National Lead site. Councilmen never have conducted a meeting outside of Clayton, but decided to conduct the meeting in south county to obtain input specifically from Lemay and the surrounding areas.

A public hearing on the Pinnacle proposal for all other county residents will be conducted at 6:30 p.m. today — May 13 — in the County Council Chambers in the Administration Building of the County Government Center, 41 S. Central Ave., Clayton. Anyone who spoke during last week's hearing cannot speak at tonight's hearing.

Councilmen then will consider the Pinnacle proposal during an executive session at 4 p.m. Tuesday, May 18, in Clayton. Members of the public will be able to attend the executive session, but they will not be able to speak.

Those who attended the May 6 meeting were asked to sign in and fill out attendance sheets.

The majority of the people who filled out attendance sheets were in favor of the Pinnacle proposal for the former National Lead site, while those who spoke were split on the issue.

Of the people who signed attendance forms, 223 were in favor of the Pinnacle proposal, while 98 were opposed to the proposal, with a total of 321 people who signed attendance forms, according to the council's administrative director, Suzanne Pratl.

Seven speakers who represented organizations supported the proposal, while three speakers representing organizations voiced opposition.

Forty-eight people, speaking only for themselves and not for organizations, spoke out on the proposal. Twenty-four people were in favor of Pinnacle constructing a casino in Lemay, while 24 people were opposed to Pinnacle's proposal.

While greater numbers of people supported the proposal, mixed sentiments still were conveyed to councilmen during last week's meeting.

Donna Miller of Lemay asked councilmen to support the proposal, noting, "Lemay deserves this."

However, the Rev. Jim Rice of Lemay told councilmen he lived in Alton, Ill., 12 years ago when "they rung the casino bell. And we were promised all the same things."

He said Lemay would be better off without a casino since he knew firsthand that the Alton casino promises never came true. Rice suggested that the county contact the Environmental Protection Division to get the site cleaned up and then try to build a prison if they were interested in helping Lemay.

Bob Berndt, a Hancock High guidance counselor, told councilmen that if he wanted to gamble, he could just turn on his computer and place bets from his home, but he realized the benefits that could be reaped for the area with a casino.

"I don't need a casino, but Lemay does need a casino," Berndt said, adding that the former National Lead site is an "environmental disaster" that needs to be remediated.

Mitch Murphy, retired principal of Bernard Elementary School in the Mehlville School District, urged councilmen to stop the spread of the gambling industry.

"The St. Louis region already has more than its share of casinos," Murphy said. "Surely, there are better alternatives to choose from for the economic development of this region."

Mike Wersching, a Hancock High School teacher, said he supported the proposal because he would like to see more job opportunities for people, especially younger people, in Lemay so that they don't have to "drive 30 minutes for employment."

Jerry Schloss, current secretary of the Lemay Fire Protection District and former superintendent of the Hancock Place School District, asked those who attended the meeting, "When was the last time your taxes went down?"

Schloss said he understood the moral controversy surrounding casinos, but he asked councilmen not to turn their backs on the Pinnacle proposal.

Blossom Singer, who was speaking on behalf of Rep. Pat Yaeger, D-Lemay, who could not attend last week's hearing, said she supported the Pinnacle proposal because the area "desperately needs an economic jump start."

Deborah Wirtel of Kids First, a group that was initiated by Beasley Elementary parents who oppose gaming, said the Pinnacle site is 500 feet from the Notre Dame campus.

Noting the benefits to area taxing districts that Pinnacle is proposing, Wirtel said she was "not aware of any other type of bribery" thrown at the entities and added, "Casino money means nothing."

Bill Cocos of the Lemay Development Corp. said he had sat in on numerous discussions centered around the revitalization of Lemay.

"I think Mr. (John) Campisi (R-south county) can (mercifully) attest to the absence of any other revenue-generating options for that site," Cocos said, while Campisi nodded his head.

" ... I have heard and read the testimony of a number of those folks opposed to this project. The common refrain is that there are other options or other alternative uses which can be employed for the 80 acres at the confluence of River des Peres and the Mississippi River. Those must be highly classified plans because I have yet to see one,'' Cocos added.

In a related matter, Campisi recently released attendance numbers from a town-hall meeting he conducted at Oakville Senior High School on the issue.

Campisi's calculations reveal that a total of 455 people attended his April 22 town-hall meeting — 427 were St. Louis County residents, while 28 were non-residents.

Of the 427 county residents who attended the meeting, 249 indicated on sign-in sheets they supported the Pinnacle proposal, while 179 indicated they opposed the proposal.

Of the 427 county residents in attendance that night, 394 of them were from south county — of whom 222 supported the proposal and 172 opposed the proposal.

Of the 28 non-county residents who attended the town-hall meeting, 23 supported the proposal and five opposed it.

Anyone wishing to receive more information from Campisi's town-hall meetings, e-mail him at jcampisi@stlouisco.com.

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