Casino Backers Hold Em Closely

May 16, 2003
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MUSKEGON — Backers of a drive to bring casino gambling to Muskegon say they have a way to make it happen if voters back the idea in a special election set for September.

The question is how they’ll do it. Principals in the Archimedes Group for now are holding their cards closely on how they’ll go about opening a casino.

The only apparent options are securing changes in a state law enacted by public referendum in 1996 to allow three casinos in Detroit — an effort that’s likely to draw plenty of opposition and garner little support statewide, local lawmakers say — or connecting with an Indian tribe that can prove lineage to land in the city and seek federal approval for an off-reservation casino. The latter option would involve a lengthy process that could drag out for years, even if unopposed.

Dave Wendtland, a commercial real estate agent for Chrystal-Anderson Realtors in Muskegon and a spokesman for the Archimedes Group, said the backers of the casino drive don’t want to publicly discuss their strategy at this point. The Archimedes Group, consisting of 12 businesspersons in Muskegon, feels confident that a casino could go forward if voters lend their support to the idea in the city’s Sept. 9 advisory vote, Wendtland said.

“We’re pretty confident that this is doable or we wouldn’t be spending the amount of money and time to get to this point,” he said.

Given the opposition that’s sure to arise from the three commercial casinos now operating in Detroit that last year generated $1.25 billion in revenues, as well as opposition from the 17 existing Indian casinos in Michigan that generated millions more, securing changes in the Michigan Gaming Control and Revenue Act of 1996 seems quite unlikely.

State Rep. Julie Dennis, D-Muskegon, pegs the chances of that happening at “next to zero.”

Since the law was the result of a citizens’ referendum, three-fourths majorities are needed in the state House and Senate to change it. A statewide public vote would then have to gain a two-thirds majority.

The chances of lawmakers across the state being willing to vote for something that benefits only Muskegon are “miniscule,” said Rep. David Farhat, R-Norton Shores.

“Legislatively, I don’t see us having any impact on this,” Farhat said.

That leaves connecting with an Indian tribe and going through the lengthy process of winning federal recognition of tribal land in Muskegon to accommodate a casino.

If the Archimedes Group goes that route, it faces a lengthy, complex process, said Eric Bush, director of public affairs for the Michigan Gaming Control Board.

Gaining federal approval is a process that could takes years, Bush said. He cites tribes in Battle Creek and New Buffalo that began the process in the mid-1990s and have yet to win approval.

“It’s an easy thing to think it’s feasible, but it’s a tough thing to make doable,” Bush said. “There’s a lot to do before the idea even comes close to fruition.”

But that process can only go forward if Muskegon voters indicate they want a casino.

The Muskegon City Commission, at the request of the Archimedes Group, last week unanimously agreed to schedule the special election to give voters a say on the issue. The Archimedes Group will pay the estimated $10,000 cost of holding the election, Wendtland said.

The Archimedes Group, partnering with the Winter Park, Fla.-based Group One Productions, sees a casino for Muskegon as a downtown economic development tool that can create jobs and generate a new tax base through spin-off development.

“We think it’s an engine to bring in a great deal of private investment which will pay taxes and rejuvenate the downtown,” Wendtland said. “It’s not just the casino. It’s the spin-off that will happen.”

The head of a group planning organized opposition to the ballot question doesn’t buy that argument.

Dave Willerup of Positively Muskegon, a group formed earlier this year to promote the “good things that are happening in Muskegon,” believes a casino would not mix with the new development and redevelopment occurring or planned in and around downtown.

Using the often-cited Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce figure of $100 million in new downtown investment, Willerup believes a casino is simply not needed to drive an economic rebirth in downtown, would not bring new investment into downtown and would only hurt the revitalization that’s already underway. He also cites an economic analysis the group commissioned on the issue that concluded more money would leave Muskegon than would flow into the community.

“We can do better,” said Willerup, a pastor who also bases his opposition on moral grounds. “The casino would sabotage what is happening now.”               

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