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Will Third Try Be Lucky For Casinos In Detroit?

March 27, 1988

DETROIT (AP) _ Once again, Detroit is asking itself whether the neon glare of a colony of gambling casinos can attract cash and jobs to a city short on both.

Voters in the nation’s sixth-largest city rejected casino gambling in 1976 and 1981 by margins of 3-to-2 in advisory votes. This time, a battalion of civic leaders is studying the issue at the behest of Mayor Coleman A. Young amid criticism from local pulpits and unfavorable results of a recent poll.

A 67-member commission will issue a report on the casino questions by mid- May. Even a favorable recommendation would have to be followed by another city-wide referendum and approval by the Michigan Legislature and Gov. James Blanchard.

Following Young’s lead, most members of the Detroit Casino Gaming Commission have taken a carefully noncommittal public stance on the issue.

″I don’t know if casino gambling is good for Detroit,″ said co-chairman Samuel Gardner, former chief judge of Detroit Recorder’s Court. ″I never really sat down and concentrated on it. I can think of good things and bad things. But I don’t have all the facts.″

To Young, the vagaries of Detroit’s manufacturing economy justify another look at casino gambling. Unemployment, which has risen and fallen with the uneven fortunes of the auto industry, peaked at more than 20 percent in the mid-1970s and averaged about 11.5 percent in 1987, more than 3 percentage points higher than the statewide rate.

While auto sales have recently shown some improvement, the industry is struggling to protect jobs these days, not create them.

″I don’t think it’s a panacea to all our problems,″ Young said in announcing the casino study. ″By the same token, I don’t believe that any enterprise that offers the prospect of 50,000 jobs can be cavalierly dismissed, especially without an in-depth examination.″

Other than citing 50,000 potential construction and casino jobs, Young has been reserved about who would develop the facilities or where they would be located. Specifics have come from real estate developer Patrick Meehan, who for several years has proposed developing as many as 12 casinos on Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River. Meehan, however, has been excluded from the commission and has been criticized by Young for acting without proper authority.

″Will it be the major industry in Detroit? Absolutely not,″ said commission co-chairman Frank Stella, a suburban business executive. ″In London it isn’t; in Puerto Rico and Vienna it’s not. If it’s going to be here, it’s going to help create jobs″ and augment the local tourism and convention trade, he said.

″This might create some jobs. Jobs to chauffeur people, be a bodyguard or shuffling chips,″ said a critic Ralph Slovenko, a professor of law and psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Casinos have provided thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue for New Jersey since they were legalized in Atlantic City. But James W. Hughes, chairman of the Urban Planning and Policy Department at Rutgers University, said casinos have fulfilled their darker prophecies, too.

Hughes, who coauthored a 1983 book, ″The Atlantic City Gamble,″ said the jobs created have been mostly menial employment. Higher positions have been filled with outsiders, including experienced Nevada dealers, and workers skimmed from other fields, such as nurses whose interpersonal skills qualified them for jobs as dealers.

Slovenko also was unimpressed by the potential property tax base created by multimillion-dollar casinos, saying, ″Everything that’s coming into the city has got so many (tax) abatements, they end up hardly paying anything.″

″You’re potentially creating a monster with limited economic benefits, unless it’s really tightly linked to hotels and downtown convention facilities ... as an ancillary device,″ Hughes said in a telephone interview from New Brunswick, N.J.

Other critics have accused Young of stacking the commission with casino supporters, although Stella estimated that backers and opponents each comprise about 10 percent of its membership and the rest, including himself, are undecided.

Casino opponents, led by Detroit accountant Thomas Barrow, who unsuccessfully challenged Young in the 1985 mayoral election, collected enough signatures to place a casino referendum on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. Results of one poll and the potential influence of hundreds of preachers appear to point toward defeat of the issue.

A statewide telephone survey of 350 residents, conducted recently for the Detroit Free Press, showed 53 percent opposed to casino gambling in Detroit and 39 percent in favor, with the rest undecided or having no opinion.

A coalition of Protestant clergy has pledged to rally support against the casino proposal.

″There is power in the word, and the word as we understand it is that casino gambling is in opposition to the will of God,″ the Rev. John Peoples, a City Council member and co-chairman of the coalition, told the Free Press.

Gov. Blanchard has expressed skepticism about casinos’ benefits but said he would keep an open mind while awaiting the commission’s findings.

Young, despite proclaiming objectivity and pledging to abide by the commission’s recommendations, said in announcing the study that the odds on casino gambling might be narrowing.

″I don’t think Detroiters ever had a serious discussion in which the facts were presented″ prior to the 1976 and 1981 referenda, he said. ″I think Detroiters voted in full ignorance the previous two times.″

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