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Detroit's Casinos Leave Some Locals Feeling Spent

Tax revenue is up, but critics point out costs borne by the working poor

June 01, 2002|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Rudy and Betty Pritchett, husband-and-wife auto workers, loved gambling at the three downtown casinos so much they were spending up to $6,000 a year playing the rows of clanging, flashing slot machines.

Then a few months ago they decided they had to ease up.

"We're just trying to slowly get away from it," said Rudy, a 52-year-old crane operator. The couple now sets the slot money aside for retirement. But every once in a while, the Pritchetts give in to the urge and sneak back to the casinos with $200 to try their luck.

"It's addictive," he's said in the past.

For good or ill, Detroit, like the Pritchetts, is hooked on casino gambling. After the first Las Vegas-style casino opened in 1999, a veritable gold rush of retirees, suburbanites and factory workers has transformed this declining auto capital into one of the hottest gambling spots in the country. And since Sept. 11, business has only gotten better.

In March, the casinos tallied their first month of more than $100 million in revenues; the total dipped to $97.1 million in April, but it was still 25% ahead of last year. Gamblers here spend more per slot machine or table position ($337) than their counterparts on the famed Las Vegas Strip ($204) or Atlantic City ($271), according to statistics compiled by Bear Stearns.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 04, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 299 words Type of Material: Correction
Casinos--In a story in Saturday's Section A about Detroit casinos, an incorrect date for a City Council vote was given. The council voted Wednesday to block further casino development.

But what makes Detroit's casinos unique are the people losing the bets, experts say. While cities like Vegas get rich from tourists who spend money and then leave, casinos here are raking it in from a steady clientele who live in the area, said William R. Eadington, a University of Nevada-Reno economics professor and commercial gaming authority.

"Detroit is the first city that established land-based casinos primarily for metropolitan residents within the city core," said Eadington. "This is America's first true experience with urban casinos."

The results have been mixed. Detroit reaps huge benefits--$113 million in annual wagering taxes, more than 8,000 service jobs, a 24-hour night life--but also pays the price of social fallout.

Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick and City Council members are locked in a feud over how much to tax the casinos--a fight that is delaying plans for the gaming houses to build luxury hotel rooms in time for the 2006 Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, Kilpatrick ticks off the human costs the city is dealing with as part of the casinos' success. "Despair, depression, bankruptcy.... All those things are negative fallouts of casinos," he said.

Locals received an unsettling lesson two years ago when an off-duty police officer ended a losing streak at a MotorCity Casino blackjack table by shooting himself in the head.

Since then, Gamblers Anonymous groups here have multiplied. The state's Gaming Control Board has signed up 155 gaming addicts who agree to a lifetime casino ban or face prison.

Less dramatic anecdotes abound about how casino gambling is gobbling up the paychecks of the working poor, leading to multiple home refinancings, foreclosures and unpaid bills. Surveying the frantic Greektown Casino crowd one recent night, a local surgeon saw the evidence in the crumpled bills crossing the blackjack tables.

"When you see them taking money out of their pockets and it is wadded up, it isn't money they intended to bet," said the surgeon, who asked not to be identified. "I think it's the worst thing that could happen to the city of Detroit."

The city's love-hate relationship with gaming goes back decades. Since 1976, voters had steadfastly refused to allow casino gambling in the urban area.

That changed in 1996, when Michiganders barely approved a statewide casino measure after watching residents stampede across the river to gamble at a Windsor casino.

"People saw the world wasn't going to end," said Jack C. Barthwell III of the MotorCity Casino. "When they saw the lines going across the bridge and tunnel, they kind of said, 'Well, it's here....'"

Resignation morphed into excitement when the MGM Grand Detroit opened in 1999 in an abandoned Internal Revenue Service building. A few months later, the MotorCity debuted in an old Wonder Bread factory. In 2000, Greektown opened in a building used by fur trappers in the mid-1800s.

The casinos have tapped the wealth of surrounding suburbs and drawn well-heeled seniors living as far away as Toledo, Ohio.

But what has kept them humming around the clock are the factory workers. Many show up in work clothes, like Bill, 39, a single father of three. Eyeing the craps table at the MGM Grand Detroit, Bill, who didn't want his last name used, said he hits the casinos twice a week after his shift at the Ford truck plant ends at 2:30 p.m.

"As soon as I get off work, I come down here for a couple of hours and then I pick up my kids," he said. He became a casino regular a year ago after his wife left him. "It helps get my mind off stuff," he said.

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