Just ask

Sep 20, 2000 at 12:00 am
To find out what’s going on in this booming metropolis, News Hits employs this tactic: we ask. You’d be surprised at how well it works. For instance, News Hits asked Chippewa tribe member and project manager for the Greektown Casino Allard Teeple about the city’s progress in acquiring the riverfront property where three permanent casinos are slated to go.

“The riverfront is a dead issue,” said Teeple, who has spent the last 12 years on behalf of his tribe attempting to bring casino gambling to Detroit.

Teeple said that the city can’t afford the property. According to the development agreement between the casino owners and the city, if the land acquisition, cleanup and infrastructure improvements exceed $250 million, the city has the option to move the casinos elsewhere. Teeple criticized the city for announcing that the casinos will be built on the riverfront before acquiring the land. He said this drove up land costs.

“If I was an entrepreneur and wanted to buy a piece of land, I wouldn’t go tell a bunch of people,” said Teeple. “I just don’t see it as affordable to the city.”

Teeple also said that the Greektown casino should not be moved to the riverfront.

“That’s just my personal opinion,” he said.

We asked John Hatch, Chippewa tribe spokesman, what he made of Teeple’s comments.

“That’s not our position. Our position is that we look forward to moving to the riverfront.”

Can the Chippewas or the other casino owners opt out of the development agreement — which requires that they each build a permanent casino and 800-room hotel on the riverfront — if the city does not acquire the riverfront property by the Dec. 31, 2000 deadline?

News Hits asked this of Mayor Dennis Archer’s sister-in-law C. Beth DunCombe, who is in charge of the casino project — and every other major development in the city. But DunCombe said, “I’m not talking to you.”

(Asking doesn’t always work.)

News Hits asked DunCombe’s brother-in-law, who initially said, “I’m not even going to consider it.” Archer added that the city will acquire the land before the December deadline. And the developers will go along with the city’s plan or they won’t be building permanent casinos in Detroit, he said.

O reader, News Hits wishes you could have seen the Mayor’s expression when he said this. It was as if the spirit of Coleman A. Young descended upon him. But if it were Coleman talking he would have been a little less discreet, shouting something like: “The motherfucking casino developers will do what I say — or they can hit Eight Mile!”

Yes, the city holds all the cards in this casino game. Nelson Westrin, Michigan Gaming Control Board executive director, confirmed this. He told News Hits that the three developers were granted casino licenses on the condition that they enter an agreement with the city. And if they break that agreement — by refusing to construct a permanent casino on the river — their licenses will be revoked, said Westrin.

And why shouldn’t the casino developers be beholden to the city? After all, they are the ones who stand to win this game, big time. But if for some reason the city changes its mind about the riverfront — or can’t acquire the land — it will be the riverfront business owners who stand to lose — big time.

Brian McDonald owns the defunct Soup Kitchen, which is on part of the 57 acres the city has targeted as the permanent home for casinos. McDonald says that after the city announced plans to put the casinos on the riverfront in 1998, his business plummeted.

“It was literally like someone shut off the faucet,” he said. Customers assumed that his business closed, said McDonald. It did close for good last summer — after operating 25 years. McDonald said he worked out a sales agreement with the city a year ago, but must wait for all the land deals to be completed.

“No one anticipated it would drag on this long,” he said.

Mark Vincent, who owns the now-closed Rivertown Saloon and Franklin Street Brewing Company, said the process would have gone quicker if the city accepted a deal the property owners offered early on. Two months after the city announced plans to move the casinos to the riverfront, Vincent said that the property owners agreed to sell all 57 acres to the city. But the city chose to condemn the land and acquire it through eminent domain instead, a tactic that failed when challenged in court. Nearly two-and-a-half years have passed and Vincent and other property owners are still waiting for the city to seal the deal.

They may have to wait even longer while the courts rule on the recent lawsuit the city filed against River East Alliance (REAL) last week. REAL opposes casinos on the riverfront and is running a petition drive in attempts to hold a special election on the issue.

The city contends that the riverfront is zoned for casinos and a ballot initiative cannot be used to change the zoning. That issue is scheduled to go before Wayne County Circuit Court’s Chief Judge Michael F. Sapala Oct. 3. If REAL wins, and holds a successful ballot initiative, who knows how much longer this process will drag out.

And if the riverfront casino deal falls through, the property owners may sue the city, casino developers and REAL. At least that is what Vincent told News Hits. If you don’t believe us, ask him. Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]