Nearly six months ago, a team of Pinnacle Entertainment's top executives engaged in a freewheeling discussion during a first-quarter earnings conference call about the future of their new $400 million Laclede's Landing casino-development project.
Shortly after Steve Capp, the company's chief financial officer, bid good morning and offered a "couple of quick words on the balance sheet and liquidity," one unidentified company representative addressed a key component of the lavish complex that has received scant attention: a 1,000-foot-long pedestrian tunnel connecting downtown to the casino.
"Imagine when 65,000 people let out of a Rams game," the rep began. "We are building a pedestrian tunnel that goes right next to that stadium. If 10 percent of the people come out of that stadium and want to go to our casino, that's 6,500 people.
"We purposely placed our casino between that Rams stadium and a lot of its parking. So people will come through our tunnel headed for their parking, [and] find out that we have put slot machines in their way, and so they get rid of the loss limit."
The bottom line: This tunnel, the company official suggested, can't help but increase casino attendance and, by doing so, might very well offset the effect of Missouri's $500 loss-limit law. The 1992 gaming statute was enacted as a way of protecting compulsive gamblers by restricting their losses to $500 over a two-hour period.
The loss-limit law -- the only one of its kind in the United States -- was actually proposed by the casino industry. But in recent years, Pinnacle and other gambling concerns have pressed for its repeal, arguing that the chip-buying limit is driving gaming enthusiasts to other states.
If all goes according to plan, the tunnel will begin near America's Center, a block north of Washington Avenue, travel below Interstate 70 and then rise into "a kind of mezzanine-like area that overlooks the casino," says Pinnacle spokesman Mack Bradley.
"That will have direct access to some of the little shops and retail on the second level."
Upon arriving at the end of the line, customers can choose to head outdoors to visit the Landing or, more important to Pinnacle, make a beeline for the slot machines.
According to Bradley, company engineers have examined the pathway and are satisfied they've found one clear of sewer and utility lines, although a precise route has yet to be finalized. Since no tunnels currently exist in that area, a new one must be built. How deep it might be has yet to be determined.
Pinnacle, which owns and operates casinos in Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana and Argentina, hopes the "pedestrian connection," as the company calls it, will beckon gamblers otherwise unwilling to traverse one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly zones in the city straight into its pleasure palace.
"If it's easy to go from place to place," theorizes Pinnacle president Wade Hundley, "people will certainly do that, and we kind of sit in the center of it all. The connection from that side of the highway to Laclede's Landing -- if we can just get people to walk through our facility, we're all going to benefit from that."
Originally, the Las Vegas-based gaming company considered a pedestrian bridge, says Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, which has given its tentative blessing for the project. "But you would still cross under the freeway. That wasn't as appealing or, they thought, attractive to people trying to come over from one side to the other."
It was Pinnacle's chief executive officer, Daniel R. Lee, who gave birth to the tunnel idea. "It was one of those moments when everyone went, 'Oh...yeah!'" recalls Bradley. Pinnacle will pay for the entire project, which Crim estimates will cost $10 million.
Bradley says the tunnel is vital to Pinnacle's interests -- that if the company is going to spend that kind of money, it wants to provide gamblers easy and unimpeded access to the casino. "It was clear right away, and it's no secret to anyone else in town, what a barrier Interstate 70 is between the riverfront area and the whole rest of the city," he says.
Crim shirks off questions as to whether the $10 million might be better used to improve the concrete morass above ground, saying only, "The nice thing is, they're footing the bill."
When completed in 2007, the development -- which is planned to include the casino, a Four Seasons hotel, restaurants, retailers and residential properties -- will consume eleven acres and extend from Interstate 70 to the Mississippi River.
Although architectural drawings have not been finalized, Bradley says the company imagines a gazebo-style entrance that descends into a clean, well-lit walkway similar to the people-movers at O'Hare International Airport. It will carry visitors straight into the complex, without any diverging paths.
"Once you enter the western end of [the tunnel], you'll be inside, and be at the other end before you know it," says Bradley. "The experience has to be a pleasant one."
Crim stresses that once Pinnacle completes the design, it will face the usual bureaucratic scrutiny, including a review by all concerned city departments and an environmental-impact study. Because the tunnel will travel beneath the highway, the Missouri Department of Transportation must also sign off on the project. So far, no one's hackles have been raised by the underground pathway.
If the tunnel gets the green light, Pinnacle may have solved a problem that has long dogged riverfront advocates, says Bradley.
"The $64,000 question is: How do you get people into the area? Once they're in the area, they'll figure out what they want to do, and there's lots of stuff to do. But you have to get them there."