Casinos Pay Off In Traverse

March 21, 2003
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TRAVERSE CITY — While the debate rages on about the economic consequence that a casino proposed by the Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi Indians may have on business here, one northern city is pleased with the effect that a pair of casinos have had on its commerce.

Those assigned with bringing jobs, tourists, conventions and businesses to Traverse City said not only haven’t the gaming operations hindered economic development there, but the casinos have added jobs to the local workforce, and helped to make the city even more of a business and travel destination.

Traverse City has hosted two casinos owned by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians since 1993. The tribe recently bought the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, one of the largest resorts in the Midwest, for an undisclosed amount thought to be between $50 million and $75 million. The tribe may move its Turtle Creek Casino to the resort.

Earlier this month, Site Selection magazine named Traverse City the No. 1 small town in the nation for new or expanded businesses. Forty-five businesses either expanded operations there or moved to the city in the past two years. Last year, Traverse ranked third on the Site Selection list. In 2000, it was seventh. So the most recent ranking isn’t a fluke, as the city has steadily moved up the Site Selection ladder.

Charles Blankenship, president of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corp., an entity that focuses on industrial development, said the detailed strategy community leaders designed 14 years ago to lure businesses there has paid off and was largely responsible for the city’s climb to the top of the ranking.

But at the same time, Blankenship told the Business Journal last week that the casinos haven’t hurt business growth in the area.

“No, it certainly hasn’t slowed development,” he said of the casinos.

“Development has continued. We’re No. 1, so it hasn’t slowed development.”

Deborah Knudsen, president and CEO of the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Business Journal that the gaming operations have contributed to the upbeat business climate there.

“It’s had a positive effect, not negative. We have not seen anything negative as of yet,” she said. “But that also could be due to the type of destination that we are. We keep trying to tell people in the state that there is a big difference between resort destinations and urban destinations.”

The tribe and its casinos, Knudsen said, have made three contributions to the city’s growth.

“They have provided a tremendous amount of jobs that would not have been here if it weren’t for them. Secondly, they have provided us with occupancy for hotels during the slower seasons,” she said.

“Thirdly, the casinos have probably brought other development into town. I would say that we’re seeing an addition of a couple of hotels and restaurants in the area that are closer to where the casinos are. We’re seeing developments take place more in the retail, restaurant and hospitality-type area.”

But as Knudsen pointed out, there is a difference between Traverse City and Grand Rapids and, as the old adage says, what might be good for the goose might not be good for the gander. Still, similarities do exist between the two cities.

Traverse City leads the nation in economic development, while GR tops the state in Renaissance Zone developments — meaning both cities actively pursue commerce and both have succeeded.

Traverse City is a travel destination, while GR is working hard to become one. Almost $220 million is being invested in a new convention center to draw more groups here, and the local CVB is spending $1 million on a marketing campaign to lure more tourists here.

What economic effect the proposed gaming operation in Wayland Township will have on both of those efforts and GR business, in general, is yet to be determined. But what is known is that Traverse City has already succeeded as a destination, while local officials are betting heavily that GR will.

“When you bring a concentration of people to any area, then you start getting those hospitality-related entities that make things happen, that give your town life,” said Knudsen.           

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