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Monday, March 18,2013

Kids in the Hall

Casino advocates, opponents pitch their opinions to the Council. Also, the 51 seasonal employees laid off on short notice speak out against Bernero.

by Andy Balaskovitz
Tuesday, March 13 — If you’re keeping score, 21 members of the public spoke in support of a downtown Lansing casino plan in front of City Council Monday night, while 16 spoke against.

The turnout at Monday’s public hearing marked a contrast to the last two public hearings on Feb. 29 and March 7, which brought in far more opposition than supporters at community centers on the south and east sides. The 37 speakers who discussed the casino addressed Council, Mayor Virg Bernero and 11 men in suits from the three entities involved with the plan: the city, the developer and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The audience members in support of the city partnering with the Sault Tribe and Lansing Future, LLC to connect a 125,000-square-foot casino with the Lansing Center included a Lansing School District teacher; several United Auto Workers representatives; a former Lansing police chief and three who identified themselves as local business owners.

“We have a moral obligation — we have a chance to fund college for our students,” said Kristen Small, a teacher at Wexford Montessori Magnet Elementary School in south Lansing, referring to the $5 million to $6 million of potential casino revenues that would fund the Lansing Promise scholarship program for Lansing School District graduates. “Please pass this.”

Jake Jacobson, chairman of UAW Local 652, said he supports the casino for “one reason: economics,” when talking about the administration’s promise of 700 temporary jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs the casino could bring. “I am tired of seeing jobs go away from Lansing. In the automobile industry, we’ve seen jobs leave hand over fist.” He added his appreciation for the Lansing Promise aspect of the proposed deal. “The UAW supports you and organized labor supports you.”

While opponents included six Council regulars (who generally oppose initiatives put forth by the Bernero administration), the group also included local business owners, two of whom passed out t-shirts at the hearing showing their website — www.stoplansingcasino.com — in all capital, red letters.

Ted Wilson, co-owner of Capital City Creative Productions at 2001 E. Michigan Ave. on the Eastside, said the administration and Council would contribute to the “disenfranchisement of Lansing voters” if it moves to approve the casino deal. “Residents are demanding a vote on this. … We urge our City Council to either vote no or do the right thing and put this monumental decision on the ballot.”

A second business owner opposes the casino and wonders if this is the type of economic development that will bring in young people to Lansing.

“I live in downtown Lansing, I’m not a hater,” said John Krohn, a downtown resident and small business owner. Krohn, who ran unsuccessfully for an At-Large Council seat last fall, also identified himself as “part of the young, creative, entrepreneurial class of people you want to keep here. Most of my friends are against this as well.”

“I’m all about walkability, sustainability and a critical mass of pedestrian traffic downtown,” Krohn said. “But I don’t think that this casino will draw in people from outside areas. … It will siphon money out of our community.”

Krohn also addressed the Lansing Promise: “The Promise already exists. I haven’t seen any effort by the city to promote it or fund it. Where’s the business community on this?”

At times, the comments got personal. Ron Fulger, a “lifelong resident of Lansing” and an Everett High School graduate, said a casino would have a negative impact on local businesses and the “moral fabric” of the city. He also detailed his personal struggle with gambling addiction. “I was a respected member of the community and even ran against Bernero for county commission. I lost my family, I lost my job, I lost my respect in this community all due to an addiction that has much more addictive properties than cocaine.”

Earlier in the meeting, Bernero called the proposal “one of the most important projects in Lansing’s history.” He touted the 2,200 anticipated jobs; the full funding of the Lansing Promise scholarship; the casino’s downtown location; and turning the Lansing Center from a “loss leader” to a “for-profit operation.”

With the Detroit Free Press reporting a week ago about six different organizations wanting to bring 22 new casinos statewide — three of which have their own plans for Lansing, including the Sault Tribe — Bernero said it’s “inevitable” someone will open a casino in Lansing.

“This region will get a casino. We want to get it sooner rather than later, get it before it goes out to the suburbs,” Bernero said. “Since we’re going to have a casino in this region, and it’s inevitable, I’d like to see it downtown where it can benefit the city and the schools as well.”

Monday’s public hearing was on four separate elements of the total proposal. Each was recommended back to the Council’s Development and Planning committee.

While nearly 40 people spoke on the casino Monday night, more than a dozen others were on hand to shed light on what some called a “shameful” display of leadership on behalf of Mayor Bernero.

As WLNS-TV6 reported last week, 51 seasonal city employees were given layoff notices in the days leading up to the point where they go sign up for various jobs like park and sewer maintenance and storm cleanup. Bernero told WLNS that the layoffs were a result of budget cuts. However, the seasonal employees, who make around $20,000 a year, didn’t find out they didn’t have jobs until a few days before showing up to work.

Denis Portier, one of the 51 seasonals who was laid off, said it “doesn’t surprise me really” that the jobs were cut, but “many of us thought we’d get plenty more notice — weeks or months, not days. That’s pretty shameful. … We deserve some sort of public apology and anything else would be good.”

Dan Peters, who also identified himself as a “seasonal for the city,” said he’s had the job for 20 years. “I don’t want a job at a casino. I want to take care of the River Trail and parks like I’ve done for the past 20 years.”

Public Service Department employee Stan Shuck, who is not one of the seasonsals, sympathized with them. “The way this was done to the seasonals is deplorable, almost inhumane. … What’s most deplorable is the administration giving raises to those at the top on the backs of these families, on the backs of these neighborhoods, on the backs of people who drive down the road.”

Following the meeting, At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney said: "It was a surprise to a lot of us. ... I hate it as much as anyone else. They should be pissed."

Bernero told WLNS in an interview last week: “There are tough decisions that have to be made. That’s not going to please everybody. That’s part of the job. … I can’t run a deficit and I will not.”
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