A year into Detroit gaming, both sides tallying wins and losses

DETROIT - Mayor Dennis Archer rolled a seven on the craps table at the opening of the city's first casino - a good sign for the man wagering that gambling will keep the city rolling toward revival.

A year after that July 29 opening, city leaders and anti-gambling forces are tallying the wins, losses and draws since Detroit became the nation's largest city with casino gambling.

On the winning side, backers say, is the $50 million or so in tax revenue the city has received from the year-old MGM Grand Detroit and the MotorCity Casino, which opened in December.

There are more than 5,000 jobs, many filled by people once on local welfare rolls. And there are small stories of shared winnings, like the casino chips left in a church's collection basket.

''The city of Detroit has made out like a bandit in the first year,'' says David Littmann, Comerica Bank's chief economist.

On the other hand, the casinos have drawn money away from state lottery sales - and from many gamblers who critics say can least afford to lose. They've kept workers at a problem-gamblers help line busy and one was the scene of what's believed to be the nation's first suicide inside a gambling hall.

And while Detroit's treasury has benefitted, critics say there's nothing tangible to show for it.

''I don't think they're the answer to all the problems that we face,'' says City Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey. ''The question is: how are we planning backup? What if there's a recession, and what do we do about the houses that get lost, the family breakups?''

MGM Grand and MotorCity are operating in temporary quarters. Their permanent casinos are scheduled to open by 2004 along the Detroit River.

''Right now, we're looking at the poor second cousins to what will be coming down the road, and the positive impacts we have now will be a shell of what's to come,'' says Greg Bowens, the mayor's spokesman.

A third casino, in the city's Greektown area, is virtually finished and planners hope to open it this fall.

While the mayor hopes the casinos will be a key to the city's turnaround, Littmann and others caution against expecting a long-term fix.

''These are enclaves of entertainment dollars, not broad-based living and working and shopping'' money, Littmann said.

The city gets 9.9 percent of what the casinos win from gamblers. City Councilman Nicholas Hood III puts the figure at about $50 million, $10 million less than Littmann's calculations.

Critics say the money's benefits aren't clear. It enters the city's general fund and is mingled with other revenue, muddying efforts to pinpoint improvements that casino money may have funded.

There's no question the casinos themselves are doing well: Finance reports earlier this year show the MGM Grand took in about $1.1 million a day over a three-month period, and the MotorCity about $872,000.

Concerns about the casinos' social effects were highlighted in January with what was believed to be the first suicide inside a U.S. casino.

After losing $20,000 in a day, an off-duty police sergeant from Oak Park stepped away from a blackjack table at the MotorCity, pulled out a pistol and shot himself in the head.

Although specific figures are not readily available, crime outside the gambling halls ''is down to a minimum, and I mean a minimum'' with ''nothing significant that's cause for alarm,'' said Inspector Willie Burden of the Police Department's casino gaming division.

At the Rev. Jim Holley's Little Rock Baptist Church, at least three members who lost big at Detroit's casinos have been given a combined $3,000 by the church to help them meet rent or mortgage payments.

''I just can't see a family being put out because of this. I just didn't want to see them lose their home,'' says Holley, a longtime gambling opponent.

Gamblers Anonymous in Detroit says it saw a 200 percent rise in demand in this year's first three months over the same period in 1999.

The number of calls to the state's toll-free compulsive gambling help line has risen almost monthly, from 1,817 last October to 5,276 in May. Still, the average number of monthly calls since the casinos opened is lower than during the five months before the city's first gambling hall arrived.

The Michigan Lottery through mid June had seen a $41 million drop in sales for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, after eight straight yearly increases.

However, the decline in lottery revenue going into the state's School Aid Fund has been offset by state tax revenue from the casinos, $23.2 million through April, said Treasury Department spokeswoman Stephanie Van Koevering.

''Policywise, if you look at it, some might argue that casino gambling might not be something we necessarily should encourage. From that perspective, it's a mixed bag,'' she says. ''But it's definitely a positive in helping our kids.''


On the Net:

MGM Grand: http://detroit.mgmgrand.com

Motor City: http://www.motorcitycasino.com

State Gaming Control Board: http://www.state.mi.us/mgcb

State Mental Health Department: http://www.mdmh.state.mi.us/ads/Gambling

Council on Problem Gambling: http://www.ncpgambling.org


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