Casino’s effects mixed for town in Michigan

Same developer will build Ohio casino if it wins vote

New Buffalo, Michigan — Barbara Flies has lots of reasons to dislike her new neighbor.

Cars bring visitors at all hours of the day and night, turning Flies‘ formerly quiet two-lane road into a pulsing artery. She now has to lock her front door and car doors. Most disturbingly, on the second day after her neighbor moved in, a visitor broke into her house, tried to steal her possessions and then drove off in her van when the thief thought he’d been spotted.

Flies, a 62-year-old retired New Buffalo native, has an unusual neighbor. Just down the street from her modest home and unfinished barn is the Four Winds Casino Resort, one of the largest gambling palaces in the Midwest.

Four Winds opened in August 2007 as the first casino developed by Lakes Entertainment Inc., the Minnesota gambling company that’s backing the Nov. 4 Ohio ballot measure that would allow it to build a casino along I-71 about halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati.

While Flies may have reason to resent the teeming gambling complex just down the street, her feelings — like those of many in New Buffalo — are more complex.

She hasn’t been touched by crime since the distraught gambler tried to compensate for his losses by stealing from her last August. The casino, she said, has helped the townships around New Buffalo pay for sports programs, parks and even assistance for homeowners squeezed by high utility costs.

„The casino has helped the city like you wouldn’t believe,“ Flies said. „New fire stations, basketball, baseball, Little League our food pantries are packed to the max.“

New Buffalo’s location along Lake Michigan, 70 miles from Chicago, has insulated it somewhat from the economic malaise afflicting much of Michigan. Most lakefront condos still fetch USD 600,000 or more, while downtown shops sell wine and artisanal pottery.

Some locals say the casino has helped fill a few rooms in downtown hotels but otherwise has had little impact on the town, pro or con. As the sun sets over Lake Michigan, it’s easy to forget the din of 3,000 slot machines on the other side of the interstate, about 2 miles away.

„They try to keep people there,“ said Kristen Pfeffer, an employee of Sweetwater Boating Supplies downtown. „Most people who go to the casino just want to go to the casino. The people who come in here are people who need a bathing suit because they won a bunch of money and they want to go swimming — things like that.“

Like many casinos, Four Winds is its own universe of jarring contrasts. Some slot machines take a penny, and on another, one spin can set you back USD 100. A premium steakhouse offers a surf-and-turf entree for USD 65, and a buffet of all-you-can-eat prime rib and shrimp costs USD 20. Valets park BMWs, while rusted pickup trucks self-park just a feet away.

The place was busy on a recent Saturday night and Sunday morning, although parking was plentiful and slot machines were always available. Lakes Entertainment and the American Indian tribe that owns the casino, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, do not release data on visitors or revenue.

However, it’s possible to get a snapshot of revenue based on money the tribe agreed to pay to the state of Michigan and nearby municipalities under a gambling compact. The compact covers only slot machines; table games are not taxed.

Figures from the Michigan Gaming Control Board show that Four Winds took in USD 814,000 per day in slot-machine revenue during its first two months and USD 801,000 per day over the next five months. That equates to USD 268 per day per slot machine over seven months, a respectable number in the industry.

Much of that money comes from people such as Don and Vicki Eisman, a couple from South Bend, Ind., who make the 35-mile drive to Four Winds once or twice a week.

Don Eisman, a 66-year-old credit manager, estimates that he’s lost USD 500 to USD 600 over the past year at the casino, while his wife, a 58-year-old receptionist, says she’s come out ahead.

The Eismans are typical of the new Midwestern recreational gambler. Before casinos popped up in the region — there are five in northern Indiana alone — they took occasional trips to Las Vegas. They say they budget their excursions to Four Winds and other casinos out of their discretionary entertainment dollars.

„The way I look at it is, you can come here two or three hours and spend not a lot of money and go home happy,“ Vicki Eisman said. „If I’m down USD 500, look at it this way: It’s the same as if I flew to Vegas. Actually less.“

Like Four Winds, the proposed Ohio casino is pitched to a regional market — about a 200-mile radius from its proposed home near Wilmington — and promises to have Midwestern sensibilities. Four Winds eschews the glitz and skimpy outfits of Las Vegas in favor of an environment that looks like a large hunting lodge, if hunting lodges were full of slot machines and poker tables.

Lyle Berman, the chief executive of Lakes Entertainment, said Four Winds isn’t a template for the proposed Ohio casino, but „It sets the tone for what we do.“

„If there’s a casino in Ohio, there’s probably not a single person who would say this is not what we want,“ Berman said.

Of course, there are Ohioans who don’t want any casino, just as some people in the New Buffalo area fought the Pokagon tribe and Lakes Entertainment for years.

The leader of that opposition was Mike Hosinski, 64, who lives about 8 miles south of the casino in Indiana. He said the casino has generated fewer traffic problems than feared but also hasn’t benefited the area.

„The money that goes into that casino comes directly out of the local economy,“ Hosinski said. „Gambling is not tourism.“

Some local residents also were spooked earlier this year by a Chicago developer’s plan to locate a strip club near the casino, a plan that’s been shelved because of opposition from local planners.

The debate over the casino pitted neighbor against neighbor in New Buffalo earlier this decade and led to an unsuccessful recall campaign against several local officials, including New Buffalo Township Supervisor Agnes Conway.

She said residents have benefited from the charitable fund created by the Pokagon tribe with 2 percent of slot-machine revenue. Tribal officials say the fund paid for a USD 500,000 city park and put USD 6,000 toward helping low-income residents pay their utility bills, among nearly USD 3 million for other projects.

Conway has no regrets about supporting the casino.

„I think it’s been great, even though I’ve never spent a dime in there on the slot machines.“

Like Four Winds Casino Resort, the proposed Ohio casino is pitched to a regional market and promises to have Midwestern sensibilities.