By Barbara Shoun
JEFFERSON CITY—There is plenty of competition for Missouri’s 13th riverboat gambling license, which comes up for grabs July 1, but one community group is saying “Don’t put it here,” and another is saying, “Let’s vote first.”
A group in North St. Louis County is opposing the establishment of a casino in a wildlife area where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers converge, and a group in Cape Girardeau is asking that city residents be allowed to express their approval before a casino could be located there.
Missouri law limits the number of riverboat casino licenses to 13, one of which will be available for reassignment when the President Casino in St. Louis closes July 1.
Of 15 entities that expressed an interest in obtaining the 13th license, four planned to locate at Cape Girardeau. One of the requirements of the law is community acceptance.
Cape Girardeau residents have voted twice on whether they want a casino in their community, but that was 17 years ago. The issue was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent the first time and approved 53-47 the second.
Doug Austin is a Cape Girardeau resident and a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Executive Board. He has served on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Austin is a member of the group that wants to give the people of Cape Girardeau a chance to vote again before the Gaming Commission makes its decision.
“It was a narrow vote both times,” Austin said. “It lay dormant for 17 years. We want current residents to make the decision.
“My contention is that we don’t need to proceed on an issue of this importance that could potentially change the entire character of Cape Girardeau off of a vote that was taken 17 years ago.”
In order to get it on a current ballot, the group has to collect 2,635 signatures. If it can get the signatures to the city council by mid-July, Austin said, it could be on the November ballot.
However, Gene McNary, director of the Missouri Gaming Commission, has said he wants to see the license awarded by Sept. 1.
Farther north on the Mississippi, a coalition in St. Louis County is hoping to keep a riverboat casino from being built adjacent to the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area. Developers want to construct the operation on 377 acres in North St. Louis County, north of Interstate 270.
“Save the Confluence Coalition” is composed of more than 20 organizations, including churches, environmental groups and individuals.
Longtime Missouri Baptist Pastor and Radio Personality Harold Hendrick, who is part of the coalition, reported that a wide range of liberals and conservatives have come together to try to keep from having the casino located in the area.
“We have been told by several sources that they would have to elevate 40 acres up 30 feet,” Hendrick said, which would result in flooding of nearby acreage.
“It’s significant in that the casino interests disregard everything decent, sacred, and ecological. They don’t care.
“Even after the President is gone, there are still five casinos within a half hour of this site, yet they want to stick one out here.”
Hendrick also served for a time on the ERLC, part of the time as its chairman. He is spokesman for Bott Radio Network with regards to the casino issue.
Former Missouri State Senator John Loudon, who is also part of the coalition, says the group would rather see one located in St. Louis in the vicinity of four existing casinos rather than in the wildlife area.
Church and community leaders are concerned about possible negative effects on the area such as laundered money or the infiltration of organized crime. Loudon said there is plenty of evidence of a link between these and other negative social implications of casinos, but “the Missouri Gaming Commission, in fairness, has tried very hard to make sure no licensees or applicants have any criminal backgrounds or associations.”
Both groups realize that casino gambling is a fact of life in Missouri; and, although they see the negative side, they cannot reverse its presence. Their goal is to protect their own communities.
The seven-member steering committee at Cape Girardeau has one overarching goal in the process of petitioning for a vote.
“We want to be Christian in all our activity,” said Austin.
“We support the council and mayor. They are great, great people. We go to every city council meeting and give a report. We want to be above board with all we say or do.”