News » Hartmann

Unlucky Town

Published the week of Aug. 23-29, 2000


Brian Selsor, mayor of sleepy little Kimmswick -- population 130 -- has a question for the state of Missouri:

"Why can't you just leave us alone?"

It's a good question.

Kimmswick, one of the last places in these overdeveloped parts that can truly be described as quaint, has just been given the dubious distinction of "winning" the competition to host the region's next casino. Last month, the Missouri Gaming Commission voted, by just a 3-2 margin, to allow Isle of Capri Casinos the privilege of locating in Kimmswick, over the town's objection.

It was a horrible decision, motivated by paternalistic concern for the failing health of the President Casino on the Admiral in downtown St. Louis. The President's management and Mayor Clarence Harmon had lobbied openly against a competing proposal to locate a casino in downtrodden Lemay in South County. Kimmswick is in neighboring Jefferson County.

"It is the staff conclusion that the selection of either of the applicants located in south St. Louis County will result in the closure of the President Casino on the Admiral," the commission staff stated in its market analysis.

Indeed, the decision turned on the dubious public cause of protecting a struggling private company. Projected revenues to the state for the Lemay proposal ($20.4 million) and one near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge ($19.2 million) were both substantially higher than the Kimmswick operation's projected $16.9 million, but the commission's assumption that the two South County boats would sink the Admiral caused it to lower those estimates by $4 million apiece. Another proposal for a casino near the Chain of Rocks Bridge in North County had a much smaller projection at $11 million.

Thus the selection of Kimmswick, over the screaming objections of its citizenry, who somehow believe that a casino doesn't fit in so perfectly with a little village of country shops and restaurants straight off a Norman Rockwell canvas. Selsor is beside himself.

"I think gaming has turned into a big fiasco in this state," he told me. "(Former Missouri House Speaker) Bob Griffin went to jail over it; then we had the 'boat in a moat' nonsense; then 'video poker is a game of skill'; then you've got Kimmswick, which doesn't want it and which projects the least amount of revenue for the region, getting it over two sites that want it and project more revenue."

Selsor pointed out one other small detail: The development would destroy 42 acres of scenic Mississippi River wetland -- complete with deer, ducks and at least one endangered species of fish -- whereas the Lemay site would have occupied an abandoned factory site and the other sites had no comparable environmental downsides.

Opposing Selsor is Jefferson County Presiding Commissioner Sam Rauls, who argues that voters there have supported gaming in the past (including one vote that carried by a grand total of 60 votes). But as a former resident of the county -- and a yes-for-gaming voter -- I can tell you firsthand we weren't giving approval to anything like this Kimmswick madness.

Still, the commission staff cited "the consistent and enthusiastic support" of Jefferson County officials. Whatever.

So what's up here?

It's all about money. And, in a truly Orwellian sense, it's all about the state.

Harold Bailey, public-information officer for the commission, doesn't duck tough questions. "This industry was built as an economic development from the original referendum," Bailey told me Tuesday. "The gaming commission's job is to make sure the state receives the maximum economic benefit from this industry."

Bailey, who wins points for exceptional candor, coming from a public-relations guy, doesn't attempt to spin the commission's way out of what -- to a capitalist, at least -- might seem an unjustifiable preoccupation with protection of the President Casino.

"From the beginning, when we started looking at whether it was desirable to open another facility in the region, the director and the commission made it clear they wouldn't open one that would make another facility go out of business," Bailey said. "It was an important criterion."

What about the free-enterprise system? The government doesn't tell a restaurant it can't open because it might run another restaurant out of business down the street, does it?

"I don't know of any restaurants that put in $100 million projects or more than 1,000 employees," Bailey responds. "The economic impact that these projects have on the community are tremendous."

But speaking of community, what about the opposition from Kimmswick? "I think the idea for the commission is that you'd have somebody looking out for the interests of the state as a whole, so that the decision is not necessarily made in the interest of a specific area but in the interest of the state," Bailey said.

Good candor, again. And about those environmental concerns? "From the (commission) report, there wasn't anything that couldn't be taken care of," Bailey said, adding that the casino would occupy just 13 acres of the wetland site.

Tree-hugger that I am, I couldn't help but wonder how you "take care of" sacrificing the beauty of rare natural wetlands for a casino.

This time, Bailey asked the question: "So you don't think they'll get the permits?"

I really can't say. But this much is clear: Environmentalism isn't the Missouri Gaming Commission's problem.

Money is.

What a sad state of affairs this is. A group of five unknown and unaccountable individuals -- bet that, like me, you can't name one of them -- has within its exclusive purview the power to make one of the largest economic-development decisions in the history of the region, and it's all about protecting another casino and squeezing out the most bucks for Missouri.

But it's really not the commissioners' fault. They're just doing their job, which is to promote revenue, not sentiment. Protecting quaint little towns and wetlands isn't part of Missouri Gaming Commission's "charge" from the state Legislature. Not in the Show-Me-the-Money State.

On Monday, following Selsor's lead, Kimmswick's Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to condemn the property in question and turn it into a park. But first, they've got to find some money.

Sadly, I wouldn't bet on Kimmswick against the house.

The state of Missouri isn't inclined to leave well enough alone.

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