REAL surprise

May 2, 2001 at 12:00 am

News Hits nearly wet its pants last week when Herb Strather sat in on a little gathering sponsored by Cityscape and River East Alliance (REAL), two groups that oppose casinos on the east riverfront. Strather was one of the main investors in the MotorCity Casino, but was denied a license by the State of Michigan Gaming Control Board. REAL member Carol Weisfeld — who also was surprised Strather showed — gave about 20 devoted Detroiters (community organizers, urban planners, historians, etc.) a tour of the east riverfront. The purpose was to pique the group’s interest in the area and brainstorm over lunch at the Rhinoceros (one of the few remaining restaurants there) on how to revive it.

But as the conversation began, folks wanted to hear what Strather thought about riverfront casinos; the MGM Grand Casino is currently the only one slated for the area.

Strather said that he suggested to C. Beth DunCombe — head of the powerful Detroit Economic Development Corp. — that the three temporary casinos should remain at their current sites. But he says DunCombe, who heads the casino project, didn’t go for it. Strather says he was told that the city needed the casinos on the riverfront to boost its image.

Strather also said that if the casinos are not on the east riverfront, the city should continue buying up the land. The city could use the $500 million borrowed to buy the 57 acres for the casinos and repair the infrastructure, then sell it to developers at a low interest rate, he said. Strather claims that this, combined with the $50 million each casino put up for the land, would make the plan economically feasible to the city and developers. He also suggested that the group contact university architects to host a brainstorming session to generate ideas for the waterfront.

Strather got a chuckle from the crowd — and himself — when he said that he was glad the Gaming Control Board “kicked me out” of the casino business. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

He later told News Hits that this freed up his cash to work on other projects in Detroit, such as the $80 million market-rate housing development under way at the former Jeffries housing site.

When News Hits told Strather we were surprised he showed for the low-key grassroots event, he smiled and said that he didn’t like the media to know where he is.

“Anything I say makes big headlines,” he said.

Asked if he thought casinos should not go on the riverfront, Strather paused and said, “How can I say this?”

Clearly the man — who needs city approval to get his development projects off the ground — didn’t want to be too critical of a mayor hell-bent on placing the MGM Grand Casino on the waterfront.

“Most people I know feel the riverfront should be redeveloped for Detroit residents and recreation use and I don’t disagree,” said Strather.

That is big news.

Ann Mullen contributed to News Hits, which is edited by Curt Guyette. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]