Gaming commission takes over casino

Jefferson City – In a highly unusual move, the Missouri Gaming Commission voted Friday to take over the Casino Aztar in Caruthersville until a buyer can be licensed.

Without the action, the casino was likely to close this month, said Gene McNary, the commission’s executive director. He said a state takeover was necessary to save 283 casino jobs and USD 6 million in taxes and fees the casino pays.

The casino’s parent company, Aztar Corp., is being acquired by Columbia Sussex Corp. of Kentucky. Columbia Sussex has had trouble getting licensed in Missouri, so it plans to sell the Caruthersville property. However, a buyer could not be licensed by the Nov. 19 deadline.

The agreement approved Friday calls for the commission to appoint a supervisor to run the casino for up to nine months. McNary said he hopes for a shorter timetable and will „nudge Aztar and Columbia Sussex to find a buyer as soon as they can.“

The commission, acting via a conference call, approved the agreement on a 4-0 vote.

State takeovers of casinos are rare.

„I have had calls from New York and Las Vegas and other places throughout the country, and they all talk in terms of, ‚This is unique,'“…“ McNary said.

Asked why the public should save casino jobs when the state doesn’t step in to rescue manufacturers, McNary said: „We’re the reason they couldn’t sell it, and so it behooves us to find a solution, so that the community doesn’t pay the price.“

McNary declined to elaborate on the licensing process that delayed the casino’s sale.

Under the agreement approved Friday, the state can recoup up to USD 20,000 a month from the casino to cover the state supervisor’s salary and other state costs. If the state’s costs run higher, they can be paid if they are documented.

„We’re not trying to make a profit,“ McNary said. He said the casino’s operation would not change and Casino Aztar’s general manager, George F. Stadler, would remain at the helm.

„We have no role except to be an interim caretaker,“ McNary said.

Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada in Reno, said Nevada has at least twice established state-appointed supervisors to run casinos in Las Vegas when the owners were unwilling or unable to be licensed. One case involved the Aladdin in about 1979, and the other involved the Sundance in about 1985.

„These are typically situations that can work adequately in the short term, but can become problematic if allowed to continue for longer periods of time,“ Eadington said.

McNary said the state will appoint Clarence Greeno, the commission’s gaming enforcement manager, as the casino’s supervisor.

Greeno worked for the Missouri Highway Patrol for nearly 30 years before joining the commission’s staff seven years ago. As enforcement manager, he approves slot machine technology and oversees financial analysts who investigate companies‘ suitability to hold gaming licenses.

Brian Hauswirth, a spokesman for Gov. Matt Blunt, said the governor supports the commission’s action.

„It’s a priority for us. We want to see that boat stay open. It’s a regional employer, probably one of the biggest employers in southeast Missouri,“ Hauswirth said.

St. Louis lawyer Tom Campbell is a special regulatory counsel for the casino’s owner, Phoenix-based Aztar Corp. Campbell said Friday that the company was pleased with the arrangement.

„It’s an opportunity to keep 300-plus people employed in Caruthers ville and keep an important part of that community’s base open,“ Campbell said. „There is an absolute commitment of good faith by all parties involved, and we’re going to make this work.“

Fortunes Entertainment LLC was going to buy the

Caruthersville property, but Aztar announced Friday that the agreement was mutually terminated. Fortunes is backed by former executives from Argosy Gaming Co., the Alton-based company that was sold last year.

Mark Andrews, an official with Casino Watch, criticized the commission’s takeover decision. He said regulators should not be operating a casino, which involves making decisions about profitability.

„This is the ultimate fox guarding the henhouse,“ Andrews said.

State and local officials, along with casino managers, plan to hold a news conference in Car-uthersville at 11 a.m. Tuesday.