Muskegon Charity Casino Is Proposed

March 14, 2003
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MUSKEGON — The latest pitch to bring casino gambling to Muskegon represents an alternative to a previous drive started by a development group that could lead to a public vote on the issue as early as this spring.

The new petition drive seeks support for a “charity casino” in downtown Muskegon that would funnel profits to charitable organizations in the area. The organization behind the proposal, Citizens for a Charity Casino, began the initiative “so there’s an alternative to the model that’s going to be presented to the electorate,” spokesman Ben Bifoss said.

“It’s appropriate for the electorate to have a choice,” said Bifoss, general manager of the West Michigan Dock & Market Corp., or Mart Dock, that’s working with a group of residents on the proposal.

That choice could come down to the charity casino or an effort by the Archimedes Group of Muskegon and the Winter Park, Fla.-based Group One Productions that last week submitted petition signatures to the Muskegon City Commission calling for a public vote on whether to allow casino gambling in Muskegon. Archimedes/Group One was among the development groups that sought to redevelop the former Muskegon Mall property downtown.

The idea behind the Citizens for a Charity Casino petition drive is that if Muskegon is to have a casino, then it’s best to have it run by a nonprofit corporation that would steer profits into the community “instead of going into business or private bank accounts,” Bifoss said. Organizers envision directing proceeds to charities and nonprofit projects such as education and the United Way.

“If a casino is going to be considered by the voters, we think the nonprofit model makes more sense and has more positives than other models,” stated a question and answer sheet circulated by Citizens for a Charity Casino. “If a casino is going to be considered, we think it should be downtown and organized to provide the most benefit for the community.”

Citizens for a Charity Casino anticipates gathering the 321 signatures required and submitting its petitions to the Muskegon City Commission within two or three weeks, Bifoss said.

Both the Citizens for a Charity Casino and the Archimedes/Group One petition drives, initiated at a time when downtown Muskegon is experiencing a wave of new investment, development and redevelopment, seek adoption of a city casino development ordinance. City commissioners would either have to adopt the ordinance language proposed in the petitions or put the question up for a public vote.

A city commissioner who represents downtown says she at least favors putting the issues on the ballot and letting voters decide whether to proceed.

“Allow them say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Ward 2 Commissioner Clara Shepherd said. “Allow the people to decide and let the developer do his thing. If people say ‘no,’ let it go and we won’t have to spend any time on it. If the voters are not with this, then there’s no sense to keep trying.”

Even if city commissioners or voters approve one of the proposed ordinances, backers of either drive would still have to go through a lengthy and difficult state approval process, the final outcome of which is highly uncertain, given the opposition in the Legislature toward the proposed Indian casino planned in Wayland, south of Grand Rapids. There are also questions about whether the city has the legal authority under state law regulating casino gambling to deal with issue.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has led opposition to the Wayland casino, contending it would hurt business in downtown Grand Rapids.

In Muskegon, the chamber of commerce is watching the local petition drives and may offer a position statement in the near future.

“We’re just sort if analyzing the situation right now,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a complicated issue.”

Under the Citizens for a Charity Casino, the Muskegon City Commission would select a developer and manager for a casino that would still pay local income and property taxes. The ordinance would require a downtown location for a casino and, backers say, would help transform the business district into a recreation, shopping and dining destination.

A site would require at least 20 acres to accommodate other development such as a motel, restaurant, convention space and parking.               

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