Over lunch at the Soup Spoon Café on Lansing’s east side, Ted O’Dell shows me a small map of Michigan marked with 24 little dots from the western Upper Peninsula to a small cluster in Detroit.
They are fairly continuous throughout the U.P. and along West Michigan. There are dots in Mount Pleasant, Battle Creek and eastern Michigan near the Thumb.
Then he points to the tri-county area around Lansing.
“See that? There’s a void in the middle of the state,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell founded the Lansing Jobs Coalition in the 15 months since he moved back here from the U.P. He is 5,000 signatures away from getting a proposal on the August election ballot that would ultimately allow for a casino in Lansing.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’” O’Dell said.
“What the hell can I do to help Lansing?” His goal? Jobs and economic activity.
His tactic? Avoiding city administrators at first to gauge support “from the ground up, rather than the top down.”
O’Dell estimates 1,000 jobs could result in a downtown gaming facility. He is quick to point out that his aim is a “gaming facility” (casinos have a negative stigma, he said) without a hotel, restaurants and entertainment — that will come later if necessary, he said. He wants the influx of people to patronize local businesses.
O’Dell said he is “by no means a casino financier.” He started working in the Legislature in 1989 and has spent time as a township supervisor, city manager and a business agent for the Michigan Education Association in the U.P.
The casino would have to be on tribal land, though, and the city would have to negotiate a contract for such. This can be done in two ways: either the Native American tribe can buy the land or the city can hand it over in trust in return for the costs of police, fire and emergency services. O’Dell is more convinced of the latter, and adds that in his experience, tribes have been willing to donate 1 or 2 percent of revenues to the local school system.
He also says that it needs to be close to downtown.
Speaking hypothetically, if O’Dell had it his way, he would put it right in the Lansing Center and expand the building to maintain convention business.
Not a first
This isn’t the first time talks of a Lansing casino have surfaced. Former Mayor David Hollister said he was approached by Native American tribes “two or three times” during his 10 years in office. One idea called for turning the former Ottawa Power Station into a casino.
But Hollister didn’t support a Lansing casino then and doesn’t support one now.
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate economic development strategy,” he said.
Hollister calls them a “regressive tax” because odds are stacked against the players, whom he said are “disproportionately poor or low income.”
“The vast majority lose — it’s a false hope,” he said, adding that it contributes to addictive behavior. Hollister is more interested in “sound, foundational economic strategies,” like Minor League Baseball, luring the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America and loft development.
“Gambling would be a diversion, a sideshow with lots of downsides as far as addiction and impoverishing people,” Hollister said. “It over promises and under delivers.”
Mayor Virg Bernero has not heard of O’Dell’s plan but said he is “open to the idea.”
Bob Tresize, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., also has not seen or heard of O’Dell’s plan. Trezise sees but one option for any successful casino.
“I’m wary of an overall positive impact of a casino on economic development in a community, unless it is located right in a downtown,” he said. “I think it’s crucial to have a walkable environment. When they’re just a stand-alone out in a field, it’s questionable how much overall impact they have.”
Trezise said he would support a downtown casino for two reasons: It would attract “at least several more hotels, which we desperately need” and it would “hugely elevate our convention business at the Lansing Center.”
Trezise said it’s important to raise the moral issue surrounding casinos, but stops there.
“Should we get rid of all bars also? I don’t know where we draw the line,” he said.
He supposes the “awful lot of decent jobs overshadows what I’m sure are some gambling problems. My guess is there’s gambling problems with or without a casino.”
Former Fourth Ward Councilwoman Geneva Smith lobbied for a casino in Lansing during her four-year stint on City Council, particularly at the former Ottawa Power Station. She’s still in Lansing, supporting the idea.
“Lansing needs to think outside the box,” Smith said before mentioning the city’s $15 million budget hole. “I look at it from a revenue aspect.”
O’Dell wonders how long it will take for a place like Flint or Jackson to beat Lansing on the casino front, which he says would only take away from gaming business here.
Smith agrees. “Lansing is the last one to do anything.
We’re the capital city, we’re supposed to be on the cutting edge,” she said. “Why does everyone else have to do something first? Why are people afraid to make decisions here?”