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Cape Girardeau hits casino jackpot

State gambling regulators selected Cape Girardeau on Wednesday for the location of a new casino that project supporters hope will help revitalize the southeast Missouri city’s downtown.

The Missouri Gaming Commission voted unanimously and without discussion to choose Cape Girardeau over proposals for St. Louis and for Sugar Creek, which is near Kansas City. Commission Chairman Jim Mathewson said there were concerns that casino markets in St. Louis and Kansas City already are well covered. Plus, he said the company behind the Cape Girardeau project has a strong track record in Missouri.

Regulators were weighing applications from Isle of Capri to build a $125 million casino in Cape Girardeau, Casino Celebrations for a $132 million facility in St. Louis and Paragon Gaming for a $107 million casino in Sugar Creek.

A casino license became available this summer when the President Casino in downtown St. Louis went out of business. Missouri law since 2008 has capped the number of casino licenses at 13.

The commission’s decision Wednesday clears the way for a casino in Cape Girardeau, but a license is not awarded until a facility is ready to open. This is the first time regulators have mulled a new casino since the limit on casino licenses was enacted.

Cape Girardeau Mayor Harry Rediger, who watched in the audience at the commission’s headquarters in Jefferson City, said the casino project would generate revenue, spur jobs, attract new visitors and create momentum for more development in the city.

“We’re more than pleased. This is a game-changer for our city of Cape Girardeau,” Rediger said.

The casino is to be built near the city’s downtown along the Mississippi River where vacant storefronts are interspersed among Main Street’s eateries, bars and antique shops. Near the casino site, boarded up buildings and some rundown houses are separated from an empty field by a road. The casino is to go where an old factory once produced shoes.

The de facto capital of southeastern Missouri, Cape Girardeau has a population of 38,000 and is located about halfway between St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn.

Paul Keller, the chief development officer for Creve Coeur-based Isle of Capri, said construction would start this summer and the new casino would open within two years. He said the casino would be “state-of-the-art” and employ 450 to 500 workers. Isle of Capri also operates casinos in Boonville, Caruthersville and Kansas City.

“We saw Cape Girardeau as really the only unfilled market in the state,” Keller said. “We felt that if we could combine the best market left with an operator who’s got a lot of Missouri experience, that’s a pretty tough combination to beat.”

Cape Girardeau voters last month approved a ballot measure to allow gambling in the city with 61 percent of the vote.

Opponents of that ballot measure expressed disappointment with the commission’s decision Wednesday.

“My heart is absolutely broken. I cried this morning, but that’s over,” said Doug Austin, who lives in Cape Girardeau and helped to organize opposition to the casino.

An economic impact study performed for regulators by the Missouri Department of Economic Development favored the Cape Girardeau project. The study presented worst-case, average and bet-case scenarios and examined the potential for new casinos to take profits from existing facilities. That study concluded the St. Louis and Sugar Creek projects would take more sales from existing casinos than the one proposed for Cape Girardeau.

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