Lansing, Sault Chippewa plan to build downtown casino

Lansing, MI – Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is announcing a major economic development initiative today. The city and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians are planning to build a 125,000 square foot casino adjacent to the Lansing Center on the city's downtown riverfront. It's a $245 million project is expected to create 1,500 permanent jobs.

Bernero says this casino won't be a windowless, one-stop retail complex like most others. The mayor also says the casino will drive funding to pay for scholarships for Lansing public school students.

VIRG BERNERO: We've come to an agreement with the Sault (Ste. Marie) tribe of Chippewa Indians on the casino, what it will look like, it's going to be integrated with our downtown entertainment district, which is absolutely crucial to us. It will generate $5 million to $6 million per year in revenue for the city; another $1.2 million for public safety, dedicated specifically to public safety for any new needs that should arise; and we're prepared to put that money, the $5 million to $6 million into a special account for a "Lansing Promise." (It's) a Kalamazoo-style promise scholarship so that students in the Lansing School District can go to a Michigan public university for four years for free. It's an incredible boost to the city in terms of economic development and jobs; at a time like this, 1,500 good paying jobs, mostly with benefits, and then also re-energizing and rejuvenating our school system and giving hope to so many students that can now be assured that they'll be college-bound.

KEVIN LAVERY: Was the Sault (Ste. Marie) Chippewa tribe looking at other cities as well? Did we have to put in some sort of a bid with them? Why did they decide to choose Lansing; did they have other options

BERNERO: Well, we've been talking to the tribe for over a year, they were interested in Lansing. You know, we send busloads of senior citizens and others to Mt. Pleasant and Battle Creek on a regular basis, there are busloads leaving, taking money out of Lansing. This is an opportunity for us to invest in ourselves, to keep the money here and then to re-invest with the Lansing Promise.

You know, this is going to be a little different than some of the other casinos that you've seen and maybe you've been in. People go in but never come out; and there's restaurants and all the amenities inside; no need to leave. We weren't interested in that kind of thing. We wanted a casino that would be melded into the fabric of our downtown that would help to support local business and support the organic growth of businesses. So, there's no four or five star restaurant in the casino. And there will be windows in the casino, which is virtually unheard of in the casino world. We want the city to be able to look in on the casino and we want casino patrons to look out on the city. And they (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe) were willing to work with us on those things.

This is going to turn our Lansing Center, which is a wonderful facility and they do a great job, but the fact is, it's subsidized by the city to the tune of almost $1 million a year. Now, we have the promise, the hope and the prospect of putting them in the black, having them not only break even but potentially become a profit center. Actually, it will be one of the few facilities in the country where the casino is adjacent to and connected to the convention center.

LAVERY: Mayor, do you have any sense of the timetable? The Sault (Ste. Marie) Chippewa as a sovereign tribe will have to deal with the federal government in terms of permitting, etc. Do we have any sense as to when groundbreaking and permitting (will take place), or is it still too early in the process?

BERNERO: Well, it's a bit of a gamble for me (laughs); pun, pun. It's a bit of a gamble for me to guess. It is my hope that we'll have a shovel in the ground within 12 to 24 months. But that's just my hope; I can't get a lawyer to commit firmly to a date because it is subject to lawsuits and judges and settlements and so on. But it's my hope that we'll have a shovel in the ground in 12 to 24 months.

LAVERY: So it sounds like you're positioning the city to compete with Mt. Pleasant, Battle Creek and even Detroit.

BERNERO: Well, why not? You know Lansing, we are the capital city, we're the center of the state, it's a beautiful city, lots of amenities now. When you put these two pieces together: the casino and the entertainment district, a thriving entertainment district in Lansing's downtown together with the Lansing Promise to revitalize our schools a city ultimately is only as good as its schools. We know that and we have said that. And yet I haven't had a way to really impact the schools as mayor. Now I have that opportunity, I'm taking it and I just can't wait. I'm chomping at the bit to get that done.