In Detroit, casinos bring glitz and grit

Detroit's casinos foreshadow what could be in store for Maryland

Gambling On Slots

March 26, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

DETROIT -- The three glitzy casinos in the heart of the Motor City offer a preview of what Maryland could expect if the General Assembly approves expanded gambling this year.

The huge, neon-lit facilities on the edge of mostly poor, predominantly African-American communities are open 24 hours a day and house thousands of slot machines. The bets range from nickel-a-pull to $100- a-pull for high-rolling risk takers.

The casinos are pumping millions of dollars into state and local government coffers, as intended. But they have carried a human toll as well -- family breakups, bankruptcies and similar problems.

The deal in Detroit differs from the one that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed for Maryland in some significant respects. For example, Detroit -- rather than the state of Michigan -- gets the biggest share of the money raised through gambling taxes.

And Detroit has full-scale casinos, with blackjack, roulette, craps and other table games; Ehrlich wants slot machines only at three racetracks -- Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft -- and at one planned for Allegany County.

But that difference is not as significant as it may appear.

By far, most of the space at each Detroit casino is devoted to slot machines, from which casino owners say they earn 80 percent or more of their money. Each houses 2,500 to 3,000 slot machines and 80 to 100 table games. Ehrlich's plan would allow up to 3,500 electronic gambling devices at three Maryland tracks but no table games.

If Maryland gets its slots casinos, one lesson can be learned from Detroit -- there's no turning back the clock. Last year, the city received $111 million from the casinos -- 6.2 percent of its $1.8 billion general fund budget.

"The city government has already become addicted to the revenues," said slots critic Keith Crain, owner and publisher of Detroit-based Crain Communications Inc. "They wouldn't know what to do without it. It's just a fact of life."

`My only entertainment'

There is little question that Detroit's casinos are popular. They attract thousands of visitors a day -- mostly from the city and surrounding suburbs.

Juanita Thomas, 62, a retired housekeeper, was playing slots on a recent weekday afternoon at the Motor City Casino, owned by Mandalay Bay and local investors. She said she goes two to three times a month and usually takes about $100. Her primary income is her monthly Social Security check.

"This is my only entertainment," Thomas said. "It gets me away from the house. ... I worked for 36 years. The money I have, I do what I want with it."

If Thomas is happy sitting in front of a blinking slot machine, city officials are happy to have her sitting there, helping generate their take.

"We rely heavily on those funds for operations," said Sean Werdlow, Detroit's budget chief. "Without it, we'd have some serious problems right now."

But gambling also has carried social costs that are difficult to measure. Some local gamblers have resorted to embezzlement and other crimes after getting in over their heads.

In one case, a 50-year-old apartment manager was accused of losing her tenants' rent money in slot machines at Detroit's Greektown Casino. The woman was arrested when she tried to rob a bank to cover $5,200 in missing rent money, according to local news accounts.

In another reported case, an elementary school teacher from Cleveland turned to bank robbery after racking up big casino gambling losses in Detroit.

And there have been suicides related to gambling -- including one inside the Motor City Casino. In that instance, an off-duty police officer from suburban Detroit who was losing big at blackjack pulled out his service revolver and shot himself in the head as terrified gamblers scrambled for the exits.

Virgil Carr, president of the United Way of Southeast Michigan, said the number of personal bankruptcy filings "went up substantially" in the tri-county Detroit metro area after casinos opened for business.

The social problems were easy to foresee, but government failed to provide the resources needed to address them, Carr said.

"Social organizations are not the power brokers," Carr said. "We didn't have the political muscle to get things moving the way we wanted to."

Casino company executives say the vast majority of people gamble responsibly.

"If people want to gamble, they'll gamble," said Jack C. Barthwell III, a spokesman for Motor City Casino. "It's entertainment."

He said many residents from the Detroit area have good-paying factory jobs and, on average, spend $50 to $60 a visit -- about the cost of a night out for dinner and a movie.

Marvin Beatty, one of the minority owners of the Greektown Casino, said Detroit's three casinos promote "responsible gaming" and make sizable contributions to charitable groups that assist Detroit's poor.

The impact of the casinos on existing businesses hasn't been as bad as critics had feared.

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