Detroit hopes to get on a roll with casinos Some excitement turns to ambivalence in wait for gambling

January 27, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

DETROIT -- Champagne corks sailed. Jubilant investors cheered as if they had already hit the jackpot with the coming of a $1.2 billion-a-year industry.

Most Detroiters were swept up in the initial excitement over the prospect of three huge casinos in their downtown that had seen so little prosperity, let alone glamour, since its Motown days.

But as the city has since discovered, the cards don't necessarily fall right into place.

"There's a new optimism, but there's also a lot of anxiety," says William J. Beckham, president of New Detroit, an urban action coalition. "People want to know when we get to the end of this thing, will the picture look any different? What will it mean to the masses of people who historically have been left out?"

Since the heady moment in 1996 when Michigan voters approved the casinos, Detroit has been mired in a difficult, often divisive process in getting them up and running.

Even as the economic promises of gambling entice other cities, including Baltimore, some of Detroit's exhilaration is giving way to uneasy ambivalence as it chooses casino operators and locations.

Though Maryland is far from even legalizing slot machines, some lawmakers hope to put the question to voters as early as the fall. And Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke makes no secret of his wish to ultimately bring gambling to downtown Baltimore.

Detroit's story is still at the beginning, when a city with a depleted population and tax base stakes its hopes on the glittering palaces of modern America.

Picking the sites

Ray Parker, a real-estate broker who specializes in historic properties, sits in an office across from his proud accomplishment: Detroit's new opera house. Not long ago, he persuaded the Michigan Opera to refurbish and move into a once-elegant theater that had been vacant for years.

But he frets that he's closing fewer such deals, despite daily calls from people looking to move into the art deco buildings. Downtown property prices have rocketed, and some owners are refusing to sell, amid speculation over future casino sites.

"Some of these buildings are so sky-high now, you can't turn them around," he says.

The three casino complexes, each costing from $519 million to $750 million, are set to open in 2001. Temporary casinos could open as early as next year while they are under construction. Each will feature a large hotel, plush ballrooms and other amenities, along with full-scale gambling, from blackjack to slots.

One will go up on the edge of Greektown, a popular strip of little shops and restaurants decorated with colorful lights.

Another is negotiating with the city for a location; the casino investors hope to locate near the Fox Theater and new stadiums being built for the Tigers and Lions teams. The third is to rise on the northwestern edge of the central business district -- and across a freeway from Cass Tech, Detroit's best-known high school.

"That ought to have the whole city in an outrage," says the Rev. Eddie Daniel Cobbin, pastor of Freedom Missionary Baptist Church. "It's terrible. Think of the minds of these kids."

The controversy began with Mayor Dennis Archer's decision to scatter all three, instead of clustering them together Las Vegas-style. Critics argued that the casinos will be too far apart for tourists in a downtown that has a reputation for crime and bitter winters.

Archer also provoked a furor with his single-handed choices for the coveted casino licenses. His picks went to two Las Vegas-led groups, MGM Grand and Circus Circus, and a local partnership between Greektown developers and a Chippewa tribe, which runs five casinos in northern Michigan.

Soon after Archer's landslide re-election in November, several hundred people staged rallies calling for his ouster. Others complained on radio shows that Archer had bypassed a Detroit entrepreneur whose casino would have been the only one to be owned by an African-American.

Today, the Circus Circus partnership, including Red Wings co-owner Marian Ilitch, is upset because Archer gave the best location to MGM, the group with the fewest local investors.

Protests over his rejection of the black businessman, though quieter, are expected to continue this week at a City Council hearing.

Beckham, of New Detroit, calls such complaints natural in a city where African-Americans make up 76 percent of the 1 million inhabitants. He says that over the years, the black community "has sensed it was not a key player in economic development."

"People are looking for a feeling of confidence," he says, "that there will be jobs for them above the minimum wage that [the casinos] will create another employment base and training for skills that have broader applicability."

Gradual decision

Detroit embraced casinos only after a long courtship.

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