Feb. 8 2012 12:00 AM

Why Hollister has warmed to a downtown Lansing casino

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister says a casino makes much more sense for the city now than it did during his administration. But he still stopped short of endorsing it, even though he has agreed to organize the college scholarship program that would result from a casino.

Hollister appeared on City Pulse’s radio show last week to discuss his apparent change of heart since January 2011, when reacting to the pro-casino movement he said at the time: “I don’t think it’s an appropriate economic development strategy. … Gambling would be a diversion, a sideshow with lots of downsides as far as addiction and impoverishing people. It overpromises and under-delivers.”

That was consistent, he said, with his position on gaming as a legislator before he was mayor, as mayor and as the director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth after he was mayor. He served as mayor from 1994 to 2003. Hollister, 69, is senior vice president of Prima Civitas, an economic development foundation in East Lansing.

Hollister said on the radio show that two tribes — one instate and one out-of-state — sought his support as mayor for a Lansing casino, but he didn’t want a casino to be the “centerpiece” of downtown’s revitalization. Instead, he chose to focus on a baseball stadium because it offered family entertainment. The result was what is now known as Cooley Law School Stadium.

“Originally, I was concerned that as mayor if I developed gaming, that would have characterized the city pretty much as I described in my January remarks. The city was pretty much dead — the downtown (had) no nightlife, no vitality, no entertainment district at all.

“We now have an entertainment district, and this gaming operation if the mayor is successful will be part of that, it will not be the defining part of it,” he said. Also, his administration was instrumental in the development of Old Town.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have proposed building a casino adjacent to the Lansing Center along Cedar Street. The agreement includes an estimated $5 million to $6 million a year of revenues for scholarships and another $1.2 million for public safety.

Hollister is still not sold on a casino for Lansing.

“I still think it overpromises and under-delivers,” he added. “I still think there are negative consequences.” 

“But,” he added, “the mayor’s also negotiated some money for expanded police and human service programming for addiction behavior, so I think it’s been pretty thoughtfully put together.” That’s in addition to the scholarship program.

Hollister’s full interview is available by podcast at www.lansingcitypulse.com.

Hollister said that when Bernero approached him to discuss heading the Promise program, like the one heralded in Kalamazoo, he was “pretty reluctant” to get into a discussion.

“But as it evolved,” he said, “and he dedicated the funding for the Promise Zone scholarships and knowing what it did for Kalamazoo as far as stabilizing property tax revenues, housing values and increased enrollment in the schools, I concluded that I would stay out of the gaming side of it.

“There’s going to be a three-to-five-year process of getting that in place, and I’m not interested in that part of it, which I made clear to the mayor, but if he’s successful and there’s a revenue stream, I would commit to working” with others to implement the program.

Referring to local residents who travel to casinos in Mount Pleasant, Battle Creek, Windsor and elsewhere, he said Bernero “makes a pretty strong case to keep the money local.” He added that he does not frequent casinos himself.

He said that he is glad the proposed casino is “not one of those huge monstrosities we see in other communities.” He also pointed to the possibility of the casino’s spawning more business for the city-owned Lansing Center, which is running an $800,000 to $1 million annual deficit.

Hollister said he will “not be part of any strategy group or legal effort or whatever he needs to do to get it done,” referring to Bernero’s casino efforts.

He said Bernero has “come a long way, even further than I thought he could” on the road to making the casino happen.

But he cites major obstacles, from the opposition of Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette as well as substantial legal issues. “It’s going to be a tough slug.”

He also cited the political risk to Bernero if it fails.

“I wish him well. If he succeeds, I’ll be there to help him. If not, he gave it his best shot and I didn’t stand in his way.”