Forum gives Cape Girardeau residents chance to get answers on gaming from mayors with casino experience

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cape Girardeau Mayor Harry Rediger is hoping his counterparts from four cities with casinos in Missouri and Illinois will "clear the air" by answering questions directly from residents at a forum held exactly one week before voters will decide whether Cape Girardeau will stay in contention for a $125 million gaming facility downtown.

The Mayors Forum will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Glenn Auditorium at Dempster Hall on the Southeast Missouri State University campus. The mayors from the Missouri towns of Boonville, Maryland Heights and St. Charles will join the mayor of Alton, Ill., to answer questions from the public for one hour, Rediger said.

The event will be moderated by KZIM-KSIM radio personality Faune Riggin. But the questions, Rediger said, will come directly from the public.

"This is information that will not come from somebody in town, not from Isle of Capri, not from our staff or me," Rediger said. "This is information coming from the leadership in those communities that have experienced gaming. I think this will offer our residents a better understanding of what actually will happen when we get gaming."

The mayors who have agreed to participate are Alton Mayor Tom Hoecht, Boonville Mayor Julie Thatcher, Maryland Heights Mayor Mike Moeller and St. Charles Mayor Patricia York.

Moeller called the Harrah's Casino a "huge benefit" to Maryland Heights, a west-central suburb of St. Louis with a population of about 25,000.

The city expects to receive more than $13.5 million this year in revenue from the casino, which has about 3 million visitors each year, Moeller said.

Maryland Heights doesn't count on casino revenue as part of the city's general operating funds and only uses the revenue for capital improvements, Moeller said. The city has used much of its casino money in road improvements, including a $45 million new regional highway called the Maryland Heights Expressway that connects Interstate 70 with Olive Boulevard. The city spends about $2 million of its casino income on repairs to existing roads, he said.

Maryland Heights also used its casino money to build a new government center.

Moeller, who has been mayor for nine years, was on the council when Harrah's casino license was approved more than 10 years ago.

"You hear all kinds of negative worries that people said it was going to bring, like crime and prostitution, but none of that ever came to fruition," he said.

Mayor Tom Hoechst also had glowing words for the Argosy Casino in Alton, an Illinois town of about 30,000 that is across the river from St. Louis and is considered part of its metropolitan area. Hoechst said he intends to answer any question Tuesday, whether the answer is positive or negative.

"But there are many more positives than negatives," he said.

He does admit he would rather see another Missouri casino in Cape Girardeau, rather than have one compete with the Argosy in the St. Louis market.

The Argosy, which opened in 1991 and was Illinois' first casino, is one of Madison County's largest employers, Hoechst said. Before the economy soured, Alton received $8.4 million in casino revenue in 2008, while the number fell last year to just around $5 million.

"The one mistake we may have made is that we've used a lot of the money for general revenue, like employee payroll and benefits," he said. "But that's not the casino company's fault. It was probably some mismanaging on our part. When the economy recovers, that's what we hope to do."

St. Charles was one of the first three Missouri towns where casino licenses were granted. The city's had riverboat gaming since 1993, said St. Charles Mayor Patricia York.

"We were not a very rich city when gaming first came," York said.

Currently, the city receives about $15 million annually from AmeriStar Casino, one of the largest casinos in the state. At first, the funds were used only for infrastructure improvements, but now the city allows up to 50 percent of its gaming revenue to be used as operating funds. Infrastructure improvements made with casino funds include streets, roads, sewers, sewer and water treatment plants, parks, roads and sidewalk rebuilding.



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