by | Nov 10, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The trick — if you want people to vote for casino gambling — is to talk as if it’s someone else’s money on the table. You talk about the millions that will come in. You talk about fat piles of taxes. You never say that money is coming from the pockets of the locals. Come on. You think anyone would vote for a proposal that said “Check ‘yes’ if you want to give your paycheck to rich gambling corporations?”

But that’s how it works.

Now that Detroit has invited the crapshooters to town, we have little choice but to hope for the best. We hope that Mayor Dennis Archer — who not so long ago was against this whole idea — knows what he is doing as he smiles and hails a “new era” in our town.

Forgive me if I have my doubts.

Casinos are not — and have never been — in the business of making life good for cities. They are in business to get rich. And what’s best for them is what they’ll do. Or else they won’t do it.

Don’t take my word. Look down south, to another city that tried this. New Orleans. I went there a few months ago on vacation. The cab driver drove me past this half-finished edifice in the middle of downtown. It was ugly and dusty and had a construction fence around it but no activity.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that,” he groaned. “That’s the casino that ain’t never gonna open. Worst thing that ever happened ’round here.”

Lady Luckless

New Orleans welcomed casino gambling five years ago. Its citizens heard the same promises. Increased tourism. Increased revenue. They would tax their casinos at 18 percent, same as Detroit. They wanted them free-standing, same as Detroit. They wanted to limit the restaurants inside so that surrounding businesses would prosper, same as Detroit.

What happened? Well, let me quote from an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which ran last month — an editorial urging voters to ban casino gambling five years after welcoming it.

“Casinos have produced no fabled tourist bonanza. . . . Who knows what these marketing types were inhaling, but here we are, virtually alone at the blackjack tables . . . and we’re staring at each other.

“These are our own neighbors out here. . . . We’re running our own money in circles. The taxes paid by the casinos are mostly our own cash.

“And for that privilege we’re stuck with the downside of gambling . . . mob influence, political corruption and addictive behavior. . . .

“Time to walk away from gambling before it’s too late.”

Now, here are a few facts about New Orleans: It is warm all year round; it has some of the best restaurants in the world; it has a wonderful French Quarter, which is open all night.

If tourists won’t go there to visit casinos, what on Earth makes you think they’ll come to Detroit?

Sucker bets

The answer is, they won’t. We’ll be spending our own money in these places. And that $200 that Sam from Livonia blows on the crap table is $200 he won’t spend at a local mall. That $300 that Nancy from Hamtramck drops on one spin of the roulette wheel is $300 less spent on back-to-school shopping.

The money has to come from somewhere, folks. It doesn’t just appear. And if it isn’t enough, the casinos will try to weasel out. In New Orleans, Harrah’s projected $33 million a month; it grossed $13 million. Harrah’s bolted. Closed up. Left the city holding the bag, demanding the deal be renegotiated.

And we’re eager to do business with these types?

There’s a lawyer down on the Bayou named C.B. Forgotston, who has been chief counsel for the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee and has been fighting the gaming interests for years. I called him last week, and the first thing he said was: “I feel sorry for your town.”

He went on to tell how the gaming interests had lined the pockets of local politicians (and if you don’t think that will happen in Detroit, you need to drink stronger coffee) and how “all those jobs” turned out to be very low paying, and in many cases, exclusionary, because you needed experience and several years of college.

Now, it’s true, every situation is unique. And not everything that happened in New Orleans is sure to happen here. But we’d better be extremely careful with this “bonanza.” We spent a lot of time bemoaning the dollars “going across the river to Canada,” but all we’ve done is create a new sinkhole on this side of the bridge.

And in so doing, we’ll hook customers who didn’t want to go through customs to lose their money. Most of these gamblers will be our people, not someone else’s. How can that we good for our economy?

If you ask me, voters here were dazed by an advertising blitz and the same empty buzzwords that have erected casinos in other towns, towns that are often disappointed. Who knows if, in five years, we’ll be like New Orleans, trying to kick gambling out?

Before I hung up with Forgotston, he said, “Good luck.”

I said no thanks. Counting on luck is how we got into this thing in the first place.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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