Missouri regulators vote to close President Casino

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | 3:39 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri gambling regulators voted Wednesday to close an aging St. Louis river boat casino, claiming the owners have intentionally slowed gambling and thus limited state revenue.

The Missouri Gaming Commission voted 4-0 to revoke the license of the President Casino. It would close by July 1, but the casino still could request a hearing challenging the decision.

"There is a pattern of deliberately putting the President Casino in decline," Commission Chairman James Mathewson said.

Casino revenue has become a more important part of the state's economy since Missouri legalized casino gambling in 1993. State taxes on casinos go largely to education.

The commission's order for disciplinary action states that the company has removed slot machines and game tables and reduced food options and staff. Revenue at the President Casino has declined 48 percent since Pinnacle bought the casino in 2006.

"That casino can generate more and should generate more," Commission Executive Director Gene McNary said.

The order states that the decline in services has "turned a valuable gaming license into an unproductive and substandard casino operation which is harmful to our state and its people."

Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., which owns the casino, is studying its legal options, said spokeswoman Pauline Yoshihashi.

"We are shocked and completely dismayed by the committee's actions," Yoshihashi told The Associated Press. "We've put forth viable plans to either repair or replace the vessel, we've dealt with them in good faith."

Yoshihashi said Pinnacle has paid millions in state and local tax revenues and has created thousands of jobs. She said the casino's decline is due to the economy.

St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay sent a letter to the commission Tuesday asking for the casino to stay open.

The President Casino sits on the century-old Admiral riverboat permanently moored on the Mississippi River near the Gateway Arch. It is the smallest casino among the six in the St. Louis area and the only one that sits on a riverboat and directly on the river. Flooding over the past several years has frequently forced temporary closures.

The boat needs significant repairs and is unlikely to be certified to carry passengers after July.

Pinnacle owns the nearby Lumiere Place casino. Mathewson said the company has a deliberate policy not to compete with the Lumiere.

In 2009, the President Casino took $23.3 million in revenue, compared with $181.1 million by Lumiere Place, according to the commission.

"Pinnacle is not going to send people to the President when they have the Lumiere up the street," McNary said.

Last year, Pinnacle approached the Missouri Gaming Commission about the possibility of moving the President Casino to a different location. No formal request was ever made, though, after the commission ruled that moving or replacing the President Casino would require Pinnacle to obtain a new license.

Closing the President Casino could affect the entire state by allowing another company to get a casino permit. The number of casinos allowed in Missouri was capped at 13 by a 2008 voter-approved law.

McNary said Pinnacle is "holding the license hostage" and that other companies have expressed interest in buying the license.

Besides the President Casino and Lumiere Place, Pinnacle plans to open a third St. Louis-area casino, in south St. Louis County, in March.

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