Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Newspaper Editorial redux

This editorial I think I might actually try to get published. It's way too long as it stands, but I'll get the paper's help in whittling it down to an appropriate length. I put it up here for general and specific comments, pretty much pre–my own editing, to see what others might have to say about my arguments or reasoning. (As long as it doesn't involve infinity.)

Again, It Doesn't Matter What I Title This

Recently, the Press has printed several letters and articles from those opposed to the opening of a casino off US-131 outside Wayland. A four-year-old PAC even changed its name and mission to that of stopping the casino being built. We can forget for a moment that they truly have no hope of fighting the casino. Under federal law, once the federal government places the land off US-131 in trust, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish band of Pottawatomi Indians will be able to offer bingo, poker, and several other games immediately, and will also immediately have standing to sue Michigan for failing to negotiate a compact for other games in good faith.

When this PAC renamed itself, they chose the name "23 is Enough," hoping to evoke the sense that there are already plenty of gaming facilities in Michigan. To be fair, they include several casinos that are further away from their opening dates than the Wayland casino in arriving at their figure, but even if they weren't, 23 is not enough. Grand Rapids—Michigan's Second City—is more than an hour and a half's drive from the nearest casino, and of the casinos yet to be built, only the Wayland casino would significantly improve this situation. The casinos are not evenly distributed throughout Michigan, a fact hidden in the name "23 is Enough." In fact, eleven of them are located in the Upper Peninsula.

But even if this were not the case, and even if the Wayland casino were open right now, it happens that there are not nearly enough casinos in Michigan. Of the casinos within reasonable driving distance of Grand Rapids, the Detroit casinos are dirty, the Mt. Pleasant casino is starting to get run down, and management in Manistee is notoriously unresponsive to player and staff suggestions. The casinos in northern Indiana suffer some of the same problems. The casinos are able to get away with this because none of them operate in a truly competitive environment. In a competitive environment, casinos would fix their problems or they would fail, as their customers chose to play somewhere that got it right. Casinos are benefitting from their geographical monopolies to provide their players with some of the worst deals in the gaming industry.

And the casinos like it this way. It is an open secret that much of the financing of various groups opposing various gaming initiatives, comes from the established casinos (including the Indiana casinos). The Mt. Pleasant casino doesn't even bother to hide behind a phony PAC name in their opposition to putting slot machines into Michigan's racetracks. They do manage to think up reasons for opposing it that have nothing to do with protecting their monopoly interests, though.

Many of the objections to the Wayland casino seem to center around the prospect that entertainment dollars will be spent in Wayland rather than in Grand Rapids, particularly downtown. Indeed, the President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Griffins is one of the top contributors to the PAC. We can choose to ignore what looks like opportunistic protection of a few bottom lines. To keep entertainment dollars downtown, these "West Michigan business leaders" (as the Press called them in June 9's Business section) could offer the Gun Lake band some land in downtown Grand Rapids, rather than the Wayland site. Better yet, put two or three casinos downtown. This would go a long way toward making Grand Rapids one of the "cool cities" that Gov. Granholm wishes to promote, and would also make Grand Rapids a far more attractive convention destination.The Post Office property would be ideal, as would the parking lot at Fulton and Market. (The latter site could even be extended by opening the new and improved Charley's Crab within the new casino.)

Changes in the law would be necessary for much of this. Surprisingly, although Michigan offers a lottery, horse racing, tribal casinos, and the three Detroit casinos, gambling is actually illegal in Michigan. Although the police probably aren't interested in arresting anyone, even your football pool and Friday night poker game are almost certainly illegal under the Michigan Penal Code.

To effectively change the law, the legislature could do one of two things. First, they could legalize gambling and place it under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Gaming Control Board, with suitable exceptions for private wagers such as your football pool or poker game. Second, they could simply change the law which limits Michigan's private casinos to exactly three, all located in the city of Detroit. Although the second option is narrower in scope, it is actually politically less feasible, as the existing casinos would tend to fight harder against a specific threat (more casinos) than a general threat (more gambling).

Much of the opposition in Lansing to expansion of casino gambling in Michigan comes from legislators in West Michigan. I suspect that since most of them gauge their constituents as conservative, they assume that their constituents would oppose additional casinos. I suspect further that the true picture is that the largest majority of voters is actually indifferent to casinos generally, although they may become more agitated for or against a particular casino if it develops that it is to be located very near to them. There are also minorities who are staunchly anti-casino, or excitedly pro-casino. I don't have polling data to rely on, but I suspect those minorities are of approximately equal size, even if the anti-casino minority is the most vocal.

Much of this opposition is operating from flawed premises. Former mayor John Logie worries that some people will be pushed over the edge into poverty by a new casino. No doubt some will—some people will become so desperate that they think their only hope is to put their last $20 into a slot machine and hope to hit big. But those same people already have plenty of opportunity to spend their last dollars foolishly, including a state-sponsored lottery with far worse payouts than the worst casino game. I doubt that the simple presence of a casino down the road is going to push anybody over the edge who wasn't going to go over, anyway.

Mike Jandernoa, the former CEO of Perrigo, puts some numbers together in a June 12 letter to prove that the casino would actually cost Michigan jobs. He makes two arguments. First, he says, many of the jobs the casino creates will effectively destroy other entertainment-industry jobs as people go to the casino to be entertained. This ia true, but I hardly think I need to explan to Mr. Jandernoa that it is right and proper for the free market to behave in this way. His second argument, that a casino will result in "losses in productivity, absenteeism and a significant rise in employee theft, impacting manufacturing and businesses located within a 50-mile radius," is also, unfortunately, true. These are symptoms of someone with an addiction, and addiction is a serious problem for a tiny percentage of a casino's patrons. But someone likely to become addicted to gambling already has plenty of opportunity to do so, including most especially the various online casinos. It is unlikely that expansion of casino gaming in Michigan would provide very many of these people with opportunities they don't already have.

Truly, I believe Mr. Jandernoa is aware of all of this, and is using facts selectively to make his case. There's nothing wrong with this; it's what every good advocate does. But he should also know that there are still some people who see throught it.

When one looks at the campaign-finance statements of the "23 is Enough" PAC, one finds that like most PACs of this nature, most of their financing comes from a few wealthy individuals. There are a few dozen small contributors, which suggests that the group does have some grassroots support. But of all the contributors listed in the committee's April filings, not a single one was from Allegan County. In fact, nearly all of the "grassroots" support for this committee comes from the city of Grand Rapids, a 45-minute drive from the proposed location of the casino!

One would have to believe that the residents of Wayland and Allegan County would be in favor of a new casino. Casinos elsewhere in the state, and indeed elsewhere in the country, have provided their local communities with the funds for public works of many sorts. The ultimate example of this, of course, is Las Vegas. Four thousand people move to Las Vegas every month because the city provides great schools, great parks, and a great nightlife, all in a city and state with no income tax and a sales tax comparable to Michigan's. The residents of Wayland who worry that a casino will be disruptive to their city should spend some time in Mt. Pleasant or Manistee. Both casinos have fit well into their communities, and in a drive through either city one could not say that the casino has changed the essential nature of either place.

Most of the opposition to the Wayland casino, and to casinos generally, is either self-serving, or is simply wrong. Grand Rapids and Michigan would be best served by an expansion of casino gaming, not its limitation.

—Dan Marsh spent most of the 1990s involved in Grand Rapids politics, but today spends most of his time around a card table. He is currently single, and lives in Grandville—at least until he decides to move to Las Vegas.


I'm all for the Casino! The people around Gun Lake need something to bring Money back in the the area. The Big Boys in Grand Rapids are so worryed about My morals?? Butt OUT.I don't think a day at the Casino is going to drive me to a life of crime.I will still go to Church on Sundays.
Stop the state lottery all you opponents thats gambling too but instead they increased it on Sundays hypocrites?? I think so--lets get 4300 people employed won't that help the economy? Hoping for a casino soon!!!

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