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Monday, March 18,2013

Kids in the Hall

Council gives the go-ahead on downtown casino proposal. Now we likely wait years on the federal government and lawsuits. Bernero: ‘There are no guarantees overall we’ll be able to succeed.’

by Andy Balaskovitz
Tuesday, March 20 — Fifty-six days after Mayor Virg Bernero announced that the city intended to bring a tribally owned casino downtown, the Lansing City Council voted 7-1 to back the mayor’s proposal.

“Thank you and Council for making history tonight,” Bernero said from the dais after votes on four different pieces of the project. “It’s important that we in Lansing support the deal and support the project. … I believe this vote will stand the test of time. But there are no guarantees overall we’ll be able to succeed,” he added, citing “legal challenges.”

“Of course, nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Bernero said. “This put us in the game and helped put Lansing’s best foot forward.”

The promise of jobs and education funding was too tempting for the Council to turn down, even though every Council member acknowledged that there were either perceived downsides to bringing a casino to a community or that had wished the Council had more say in contractual details.

The lone no-vote on the main piece of Monday night’s business (there were four separate votes relating to the casino) was 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko. She said “the majority” of feedback she heard from city residents was against the idea, while correspondence from both city residents and non-city residents was “split half and half.”

“This is the most difficult issue I have considered in my three years on Council,” she said before calling the Lansing Promise aspect of the project “a beautiful concept” and telling the administration she wished Council had more say in drafting the contracts between the city, the tribe and the developers. “When you look at all the comments we have received, including people in and out of the city, it was really split half and half. In that kind of situation I have to go with my gut and my gut tells me: I think the thing’s gonna pass. I’m not going to vote in support of it.”

The intergovernmental agreement between the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the city says that the city will get 2 percent of gaming revenues — between $5 million and $6 million annually — to fund the Lansing Promise scholarship program, an idea that Bernero has credited to his wife, Teri Bernero. The administration also promises 700 temporary and 1,500 permanent jobs to result from the deal.

“Jobs are important. We definitely need to look at activities that will bring good jobs to our community,” At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said. “The Lansing Promise is something vital and important and can change neighborhoods. But the other part is the deal that’s before us. The rhetoric we get back is: ‘If you don’t like it, vote it down.’ I think a number of us say there are changes we wish we could put in. … We weren’t given that opportunity.”

The Council voted on three more items relating to the casino, none of which passed unanimously. A special land use permit for the developers to build a parking ramp north of Cooley Law School Stadium was approved 7-1 with Yorko voting no; a 35-year, $21 million brownfield plan for the parking ramp was approved 6-2 with Wood and Council President Brian Jeffries voting no; and an ordinance to rezone that property to allow for some commercial use passed 6-2 with Wood and Jeffries voting no.

“One of the reasons I’m going to support this is the scholarship proposal on the table for Lansing schools. Certainly jobs is the other deal,” Jeffries said before casting his votes. But he was also “frustrated” that other parts of the deal couldn’t be amended, such as the brownfield he voted against. “I hope in the future as we roll out more projects, maybe we can approach it in a different way.”

All eight Council members took time to explain their positions before casting votes. Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson said she had been getting text messages during the meeting from people urging her to vote against it; At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar said no realistic options exist for funding Lansing Promise, particularly through a millage or from wealthy benefactors; and 1st Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington did not sympathize with lower income people who may gamble away what little income they have: “I can’t say no to students and I can’t say no to workers,” she said.

See here for details on what the four pieces Council approved Monday.

Conventional wisdom that members of the public generally comment in opposition during City Council meetings, on any issue, was thrown out the window Monday. As an initial tide of public opposition surfaced in public forums Feb. 29 and March 7, the number of supporters at Monday’s Council meeting roughly quadrupled the number of opponents. Forty-three people spoke Monday night: 34 in support, eight opposed and one whose position was unclear.

Eugene Wanger, who has lived in Lansing “for over three-quarters of a century,” remembered: “When I was a boy, organized gambling was only a glean in the eye of the Purple Gang in Detroit.” He said the casino proposal tries to “make Lansing a city of losers. Every penny made by casino gambling, billions of dollars a year, comes from losers. Lansing citizens will be ripped off by professional gamblers including a great many who can least afford it. It’s the most ruinous and regressive form of income redistribution ever devised. You should be ashamed of trying to bring this pernicious and corrupting influence into our community. If the proposition passes, we should put up a sign at the city limits that says, ‘Welcome, losers,’ and sign your names to it.”

Candice Morrison, a Lansing resident whose husband teaches in the Lansing School District, said a casino would have a significant impact on families moving to the community for the scholarship program and also would provide immediate jobs.

“My husband who works for the Lansing School District hasn’t had a raise in seven years,” she said. “On behalf of myself, my family, property values, I’m all for this casino. I want to see my three grandchildren have four-year scholarships. I’d like to see my husband get a raise.”
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