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Some Mich. cities bet casinos would boost economy

Sat, 03/06/2010 - 5:16am
TIM MARTIN - Associated Press Writer - Associated Press

Jobs are hard to come by in Benton Harbor, a recession-ravaged town of 10,800 on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The city has lost more than 15 percent of its population in the last two decades. The local government's budget situation is so bad the state might appoint an emergency financial manager.

That's why Mayor Wilce Cooke backs a proposed ballot measure that would allow casinos to open in Benton Harbor and six other Michigan locations, potentially creating jobs and dedicating a slice of the tax revenue to local governments.

"High unemployment, foreclosures — we've been hard hit," Cooke said. "We have to be smart to generate new forms of revenue, and I think this is one way to do that."

A coalition called Michigan Is Yours, co-chaired by Cooke, needs to collect more than 380,000 voter signatures by July 5 to make the November ballot. The measure would allow developers to open casinos in Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Muskegon, Romulus and slot machines at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Sports betting would be allowed at Michigan casinos if the measure becomes law.

It's one of two gambling-oriented proposals trying to make the November ballot. The other is a measure that would allow up to eight more casinos, five of which would be located at Michigan horse racing tracks.

Supporters promote casinos as a way to create jobs, reinvigorate tourism and boost tax revenues for key government programs.

The Michigan Is Yours proposal, for example, would require the new casinos to pay a wagering tax of up to 19 percent. Some of the cash would go to Michigan's suspended Promise college scholarship program and the popular Pure Michigan tourism advertising campaign. Another chunk of tax revenue would go to the local governments where the casinos are located.

But some doubt the plan will cure what ails Michigan.

The state already has 23 casinos, including one under construction, giving Michigan one of the nation's largest gambling presences. Detroit's three casinos saw combined revenue decline in 2009 for the first time. Ballot measure opponents argue Michigan is nearing the casino saturation point and that gambling expansion hasn't done much to boost overall economic development, since the state has the nation's highest unemployment rate.

"How many of these do we need?" asks Gary Post, a Muskegon developer who opposes the ballot measure. "We've got 23 now, and from what I can tell they certainly haven't lived up to their billing in terms of creating this economic engine that people tell you they're going to create here in Michigan."

Michigan is one of several states arguing over gambling expansion in an era of high unemployment and government budget problems.

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo has proposed building two casinos and adding slot machines to the state's four race tracks. DeLeo acknowledged concerns about potential problems — including increased crime and alcohol and gambling abuse — that may come from expanded gambling. But he says there's also a social cost to joblessness.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a long-time opponent of gambling, has forced the shutdown of several electronic bingo parlors in his state. Riley says the electronic devices in the halls are essentially slot machines and illegal in Alabama. But the closings have idled 2,000 workers, and leaders in the affected communities say they are being deprived of badly needed jobs and tax revenues.

Ohio voters late last year approved a measure that allows casinos in four cities. Hawaii lawmakers last month decided not to allow gambling in the state.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling hasn't yet taken a position on the Michigan ballot measure that would allow the opening of a casino in his city of 112,000, but says he'll "give every prospective economic development project a serious look."

Flint has suffered along with the domestic auto industry, and unemployment in the long-time General Motors Corp. town averaged 26 percent in 2009. The city has laid off 100 police and firefighters in the past year.

Casino debate has come and gone for some 20 years as Flint considers ways to diversify its economy. Talk has perked up again this month because of the possible ballot initiatives.

"I would say there's a mixed response," Walling said. "People are interested in the jobs, but they're not sure casinos are the right way forward."

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