Turns out the people behind some organized opposition to Lansing’s downtown casino proposal are young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs who think a casino does nothing to bring more people like themselves to Lansing.
A trio of young small-business owners — ages 31, 28 and 33 years — passed out t-shirts reading “STOPLANSINGCASINO.COM” Monday night at a City Council public hearing on the issue. They’ve been organizing for the past month and a half. They’re not raising money for their efforts — yet.
Ted Wilson, who owns a house on the east side near the business he co-owns, Capital City Creative Productions, said it all “seems to be going very, very fast.” The group is opposed to a casino in Lansing because they are concerned it would siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Lansing area and send them to Sault Ste. Marie. They also worry that it would destroy competing local businesses, hence negating job growth from the casino itself.
Moreover, they fear that the Bernero administration and City Council will “disenfranchise” voters by not letting them vote on the proposal.
“As a local business owner, I just can’t fathom the idea of taking money from sales and giving it to a sovereign nation who doesn’t live here,” Wilson said.
Ultimately, Wilson thinks voters should make such a “monumental” decision. The sentiment is amplified on the group’s website: “Without bringing this matter to a public vote, the Mayor and is (sic) backers are disenfranchising the Lansing voters out of a decision that is more important than the recent golf course parkland sale vote that was on the ballot last year. It’s just another dirty trick used by the gaming industry to bypass the people.”
Wilson also said the group is behind the Michigan Economic Sustainability Alliance, which was granted domestic nonprofit corporation status by the state on March 1. He added that the StopLansingCasino.com contingent may raise money through that entity to oppose the casino project.
Later on in Monday night’s meeting, another Lansing resident and small business owner explained that a casino isn’t the kind of economic development that lures young people.
“I’m part of the young, creative, entrepreneurial class of people you want to keep in Lansing,” said John Krohn, who ran unsuccessfully for an At-Large Council seat last fall. “Most of my friends don’t like casinos but like to go out. We like culture, art. We choose to go to places like New York, Portland, Austin, Chicago. In Michigan we don’t go to places like Battle Creek and Mount Pleasant. We like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids where there is a critical mass of things to do downtown that are engaging. This casino is not going to be like that.
“I can’t stress enough that (a casino) doesn’t fit in the plan with what we want for our downtown region. It’s a good idea but not the best idea,” Krohn added.
Krohn and Wilson were two of 16 people who spoke against the casino Monday night. However, unlike the casino public hearings Feb. 29 and March 7, the supporters outnumbered opponents, 21 to 16. Six of the supporters identified themselves as small business owners, students or young professionals living in Lansing. One was a former law clerk for City Attorney Brig Smith and two others were former staffers on Mayor Virg Bernero’s gubernatorial campaign, Charles Moore and Farhan Bhatti. Two others — the owner of a kayak rental business on the Grand River and the CFO of American Eagle Superstores — said increased traffic downtown will benefit their businesses. Others representing local UAW units and the Lansing School District advocated for the project because of the $5 million to $6 million the administration says is earmarked for four-year scholarships to any university in the state for Lansing graduates.
“The talk about the jobs, jobs, jobs: I hear a lot of people talk about business investment like it’s bad. I thought the whole point behind economic development is to draw people here to do business in the city of Lansing,” said Moore, a local accountant and treasurer of Bernero’s gubernatorial campaign. He asked for all of the “naysayers” of the casino to consider what downtown Lansing was like 17 years ago: “It used to be dead, seedy places.”
Like Krohn, though, Thomas Stewart (who turns 30 on Saturday) is another small business owner in Lansing who ran unsuccessfully for an At-Large City Council seat last fall.
“People I’ve heard from my network of the creative class say they’re not really interested in a casino,” he said. “I think it’s about quality jobs and what are the real numbers going to be?” he said, questioning the amount of spinoff economic activity and annual revenues, which the administration projects around $400 million and $250 million, respectively.
Stewart describes himself as going from “totally opposed” to the casino at the start to being “much more interested in the development than I used to be.” He called casinos a “predatory business” and agreed with Krohn that perhaps part of the negative sentiment among the young creative class is one of image.
At-Large City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar said her sense among the young, creative class — such as the #lovelansing contingent that came out in droves to support developer Pat Gillespie’s Market Place project over a year ago — is that they are for the casino about 60 percent to 40 percent. She added that’s about what it is “across most demographics” she asks. “I also hear from older folks who say downtown is only for young people because they don’t go to bars all night,” she said.
Dunbar said she does not foresee the Council’s putting it on the ballot.
Before Monday’s public hearing, Bernero told the Council and audience members the casino proposal is “one of the most important projects in Lansing’s history.” When asked if he thought the Council should have voters weigh in on such a lofty proposal — like it did with Bernero’s millage increase proposal — he said: “I think it’s unnecessary.” He called the millage comparison “apples and oranges” because that was a “tax question” and this is “economic development.”
“This is a big decision we can make,” the mayor added.