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Owners of aging St. Louis casino fight for right to upgrade

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Managers of the President Casino in St. Louis urged state regulators Tuesday to allow them to replace an aging riverboat without risking its operating license.

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. said it wants to replace the Admiral riverboat, upon which the President Casino sits near downtown St. Louis. The Admiral will no longer be certified for passengers after July 2010 without significant repairs. It was first built in 1907 and rebuilt in 1940.

Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment also owns the newer Lumiere Place casino only a few blocks away.

The Missouri Gaming Commission held a special public hearing Tuesday to gather information about future plans for the President Casino and to consider whether Pinnacle Entertainment should be allowed to use its existing license for a replacement to the Admiral.

After meeting for nearly six hours, commissioners emerged from private session and announced that a decision would not come Tuesday. Chairman James Mathewson said that while there is no timeline, a decision would come "within a reasonable period of time."

"I think we kind of got overloaded with information today," Mathewson said.

Regulators' decision about what to do with the Admiral and President Casino could affect the entire state because a 2008 voter-approved law caps the number of casino licenses at 13. Missouri currently has 12 facilities and one under construction, meaning those seeking to develop new casinos must wait until an existing facility loses its license.

Officials in Cape Girardeau and Sugar Creek, near Kansas City, previously have expressed interest in building a casino.

The state attorney general's office also said in a July 16 legal opinion that Missouri casino licenses are pinned to a specific location and facility. The three-page letter signed by Attorney General Chris Koster and state Solicitor James Layton said state law limits options for casino regulators.

"We conclude that to replace a boat or permanently change a location requires the issuance of a new license," the letter states.

Cliff Kortman, president of design and construction for Pinnacle Entertainment, testified Tuesday that the casino company could present regulators next month with a preliminary plan for replacing the Admiral with a new barge at its current location.

But Missouri Gaming Commission staff members said regulators should not allow the plan to go forward given the limit on casino licenses. Commission general counsel Christopher Hinckley said the 2008 law means there must be even more scrutiny over casinos to ensure the state revenues are being maximized.

"You need to make sure that all those licenses are producing," he said.

Attorneys for Pinnacle Entertainment presented the firm as an important contributor to civil life in St. Louis. They said the firm wanted to work with casino regulators to replace the Admiral and improve the President Casino.

"There is no more cooperative licensee in Missouri than Pinnacle Entertainment," said Jack Godfrey, the firm's general counsel.

Mathewson acknowledged that Pinnacle Entertainment's business reputation is a consideration.


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