It was 20 years ago that Livingston County found itself one vote away from having a casino.
Think about that: Here’s the story of just how close we came to having blackjack tables and slot machines across M-59 from our outlet mall.
It was in late 1998 and early 1999 that Howell Township found itself grappling with a proposal for a $100 million casino/convention center/golf course/multi-restaurant development on 150 acres of land in the quadrant of I-96, M-59 and Burkhart Road, home to the TransWest Industrial Park and the Tanger Outlet Center.
The casino portion of the development was to have been operated by the Bay Mills Indian Community of the Upper Peninsula. At the time, Bay Mills was the only tribe in the state authorized to operate a casino off reservation lands.
Size-wise, the casino pitched was about a third the size of the Chippewa-owned casino in Mount Pleasant. The golf course — designed by Jerry Matthews Natural Golf Course Design of Lansing — would have featured nine holes and taken up roughly half the property. There were to be 200 rooms in the hotel, as well as a restaurant or two.
Developers presented their plans and made their pitch. The proposal brought out throngs of vocal supporters and opponents, so many so that the public hearing was moved to the Howell High School auditorium to accommodate the crowds. There were newspaper editorials and letters to the editor.
The issue was a big, big deal.
How big of a deal?
Not only did I take a field trip to Mount Pleasant with Christopher Nagy, the reporter on the story (I went along as the supervising editor, of course, and between the two of us, I remember we lost $20 playing slot machines), but in an unprecedented move, the front page of the Oct. 28, 1998, edition of the Livingston County Press was cleared for just one story: Will Howell Township roll the dice on an Indian casino?
And for four months, no one knew whether it would
We should have known it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing when the Bay Mills Tribe and Howell Township hit a roadblock: the tribe wanted its plans approved before it sat down with the township to work out the details, while the township wanted to work out the details before it considered whether or not to approve the plan.
And, of course, there was the golden goose being waved in front of Howell Township’s nose: the 2 percent of slot machine revenues required by law to be paid to it. We’ll never know how much that might have been, but we do know that in 1997, Mt. Pleasant received nearly $6.5 MILLION from the Soaring Eagle Casino’s slots.
Though it took Howell Township four months to turn down the plan, it wasn’t the resounding rejection you might have guessed.
The proposal lost by a single vote on Feb. 15, 1999.
The late William Earl, who was Howell Township’s supervisor at the time, cast the deciding vote against the casino.
Think about that: Howell Township was one vote away from approving a casino development.
“This is an ultra-conservative community,” Earl said. “I welcome a convention center and I welcome a hotel, but I’m kind of concerned about a casino.”
Then-state Sen. Mike Rogers agreed as he helped lead the charge against the proposal.
Rogers had served on the state Senate subcommittee that studied and helped organize the three-casino deal in Detroit that had been approved by voters in 1997.
“It’s the wrong direction for this community,” Rogers said at a weekend public hearing in the Howell High School auditorium. “Let’s continue to build Livingston County on our strengths, not on people’s weaknesses.”
The Livingston County Press agreed.
In its Dec. 23, 1998, editorial, we wrote:
“Is this the kind of development we want for our community? Is gambling what Livingston County needs? While the amenities surrounding this proposal are certainly attractive, they are there to service the main piece, the part of the plan that makes or breaks the deal: the casino.
Is a casino what we want?
Livingston County is not an economically disadvantaged area. It doesn’t have to look for a gimmick to lure residents, businesses, visitors and dollars. Livingston County is in a position far different than many of the communities in which Indian casinos exist or are proposed for.
We don’t need the casino to lead an economic comeback. We don’t need the casino to put us on a tourist destination list. We don’t need the casino to save our future.
We don’t need the casino.”
Even then-Gov. John Engler weighed in, saying he would axe the proposal it if it were to move forward, though whether he had the authority to do so remains unclear. At the very least, the casino proposal would have become tangled up in litigation for who knows how long, but the Howell Township casino proposal fizzled before a test between the governor’s authority and the developer’s belief on the issue could play out.
In the end, the Howell Township Board rejected the casino by a single vote.
I’ve never doubted that this was the right decision for the community. But think how different things would be today if there was a casino across M-59 from the outlet mall.
Then, a year later, in April 2000, a Tyrone Township resident floated the idea of building an Indian-run casino on land just off Old U.S. 23 between Center and White Lake roads. That proposal appears to have faded after it received strong opposition from area residents.
If you’re at all interested in reading the details about the history of gambling in Michigan, the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University is a wonderful resource. Here are some links if you want to know more:
Beginning of Indian Casinos in Michigan
Legal Acceptance of Indian Gaming
Michigan State Gaming Compact