Casino Royale

April 2, 2007
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The WWE road show couldn’t have picked a better week to roll through Grand Rapids. In similar fashion to Stone Cold Steve Austin’s blindside of John Bradshaw Layfield at the Van Andel Arena Tuesday night, former Ambassador Peter Secchia announced that 23 casinos in Michigan were not enough, suggesting a local public-private partnership to create a casino in downtown Grand Rapids.

The idea piggybacks on a proposal from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to fund the Cobo Hall expansion. A noticeable distinction between the two plans: Patterson is proposing a fourth Detroit casino that would be run as a joint venture of the existing three casinos, allowing the project to fit within the boundaries of the 1996 law allowing the existence of limited commercial casino gaming in Michigan.

Among other criteria, the law states that up to three casinos are permitted in cities with a population of 800,000. Coupled with the 2005 Constitutional amendment aimed at “racinos” requiring a local and statewide vote for any new commercial gaming operation, the legislative hurdles alone chould convince any potential investor to steer clear of Secchia’s suggestion.

The chairman emeritus of Universal Forest Products, traveling in Florida last week, had been the Batista of West Michigan gaming opposition, and his sudden change of heart is a definite blow to 23 is Enough’s credibility. Even worse, it helps the case of the Gun Lake Tribe, suggesting that casinos really aren’t that bad.

23 is Enough Chairman Mike Jandernoa attributed Secchia’s departure to personal attacks from Gun Lake supporters, and that “he has made it clear to us that he is tired, hurt, and ready to focus his resources and attention on other areas.”

Before the Secchia proposal was made public, the Business Journal queried 23 is Enough spokesman John Helmholdton the possibility of a downtown casino.

“There may be some officials who believe that if a casino was in Grand Rapids instead of Wayland, that maybe it wouldn’t have a negative impact. That’s certainly not a position taken from 23 is Enough or MichGo (the AlleganCounty organization created to stop the Gun Lake Casino),” he said.

“But even if there is discussion of a commercial casino in Grand Rapids, I don’t see how it passes. The same amount of money would be put up against it as was for Proposal 1,” he said, referring to the $10 million campaign engineered by Michigan tribal and Detroit and Indiana commercial casinos for a 2004 ballot initiative requiring citizen approval to expand gaming. “And assuming GunLake is successful in the end, even if it is just Class 2 gaming, wouldn’t they do the same thing?”

On a related note, House Speaker Pro Tem Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids, has asked Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, D-RedfordTownship, to pursue renegotiations of all the current tribal gaming compacts, with the hope that some of the state’s revenue sharing payments can be restored prior to the first round’s expiration in 2013.

John Wernet, legal counsel for Gov. JenniferGranholm on Indian affairs, recently indicated he thought the GunLake compact would serve as a model for the 2013 renewals. Sak, cribbing data from a March 23 is Enough press release on the GunLake compact, argues that even the loftier revenue sharing in the GunLake compact is inferior to the much larger payments from the Detroit casinos and tribal compacts in other states.

Earlier in the month, the Friends of Labor arranged a sit-down between Sak and the Gun Lake Tribe. Among other issues, the topic of whether the tribe would be willing to open a second gaming facility in downtown Grand Rapids was discussed.

“It came up, but it didn’t get anywhere,” said Buck Geno, vice president of the West Michigan Building Trades. “The feeling was, ‘We tried that seven years ago, and the business community in Grand Rapids told us to fly a kite.’”

**Local culinary icon The Sierra Room will cease operations on May 5. Owner Rita Williams cited increased competition for the restaurant’s demise.

“When we opened 10 years ago, we were the restaurant downtown,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of new restaurants come in, and it’s been much more competitive.”

The Grand Rapids Magazine Restaurant of the Year for 1998, The Sierra Room received the magazine’s Excellence in Dining honor each of the next three years, but missed the cut in three of the past five. It received the honor this year, but alas, culinary excellence does not ensure profitability.

Williams will be hosting a final dinner on May 4 with wine makers Dominic Symington and Marc Perrin. The $100 dinner includes six wines, two ports, appetizers and a five-course meal and dessert — quite a bargain by The Sierra Room standards. Plus, it will be a great time to bid on the restaurant’s tables and chairs.

While a blow to the Gill Industries family, from which the restaurant launched, this marks another unhappy ending for executive chef Chris Perkey. In this decade, he’s seen closures at the Bistro Bella Vita East Beltline location, at his Firehouse Grill in East Grand Rapids, and now at The Sierra Room.

In other news, at the revamped Plaza Café at the Courtyard by Marriott, new executive chef Dan Kelley opted to take a promotion at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel instead of the PlazaTowers gig.

**In a completely different culinary experience, the West Michigan Whitecaps have added some unique items to the menu this year. Joining Pepperoni Bosco Sticks, Cheddar Munchers, pretzel buns and chicken salad wraps as new Fifth Third Ballpark additions this year are Deep Fried Pepsi and Robinette’s Apple Cider Malts.

The malt combines hometown favorite Robinette’s Apple Cider with cinnamon, spices and vanilla ice cream for a new summertime Tiki cup experience. Although an off-putting concept, Whitecaps Food and Beverage Director Matt Timon sounds confident Deep Fried Pepsi will be a hit — deep-fried Pepsi-flavored batter balls drizzled with Pepsi flavored frosting and topped with whipped cream.    

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