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Block E casino? Minneapolis should hedge its bet

Interior design of proposed Block E casino.
Interior design of proposed Block E casino.

Even if the Block E casino idea weren't facing long odds at the Legislature, the proposal should face tough questions at City Hall — and from anyone interested in downtown Minneapolis' role as the region's focal point for commerce and culture.

The question that haunted me when I first heard of the plan several months ago and still bothers me is this: Is Minneapolis really that desperate?

I know that downtown's retail scene is a faint shadow of its former self and that its share of the metro office market has been slipping. I know that the Convention Center and Target Center could be doing better, and that Block E's big flop has been a disappointment to the rest of the entertainment district.

But downtown is hardly a basket case. A new ballpark is one ripple in a wave of renewal that includes museums, theaters and concert halls. New housing, despite the recession, is poised to move ahead whenever the market returns. Streets have never been cleaner or greener. Crime is in retreat. Rail transit has been a hit. A Vikings stadium makes more sense downtown than anywhere else.

Who are we?
But a casino? Aside from Las Vegas, a fantasy island built on gambling and tourism, I'm unaware of any U.S. city that has built a casino for any reason other than desperation.  Failing Rust Belt cities build casinos. Detroit and Pittsburgh have them. Cleveland and Cincinnati are joining the list. Saginaw and Lansing, Mich., and Rockford, Ill., want to build them.

Is that who we are? Or is this an entirely different case?

From my vantage point, we are a city and a state that falls somewhere between the failed Rust Belt and the ascendant West. We are not strapped to a gurney like Cleveland or Detroit, waiting for a transfusion. But neither are we as dynamic or appealing as Seattle or Denver or Austin. If not a transfusion, downtown could use a vitamin pill.

That Bob Lux of Alatus LLC is behind the casino idea gives it credibility far beyond what it would otherwise have. Lux is a pioneer and a visionary. His Grant Park and Carlyle condo projects set a new standard in downtown luxury living. If anyone could make a high-end casino work in this market it's Lux. If the Legislature and governor decide to expand gambling in the state, then Lux deserves a chance to make good on his idea.

Rolling the dice
From an urban-design standpoint, a casino would provide Lux with the incentive to transform the hideously designed Block E fortress into a more open, more appealing place. From a business standpoint, a casino would expand the restaurant, hotel and convention scene and bring more energy to the entertainment district.

But from a community standpoint it's still a roll of the dice. How would Lux guarantee his vision of an upscale casino that will draw a respectable crowd? What happens when the drink prices fall and the dress codes relax? How will the corner of 7th and Hennepin look on a cold Tuesday night in November after the novelty wears off? Maybe Minneapolis can become the Monte Carlo of the northern plains, but don't hold your breath.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe my doubts are unfounded. Maybe every successful U.S. city will soon have a casino as part of its entertainment menu. I'm not against gambling on moral grounds, as long as it's properly regulated and as long as its benefits continue to outweigh its costs, but that could be a sliding scale. If gambling does come to Hennepin Avenue — and that might be a chance worth taking — then the city should have the option to pull the plug if the civic benefits decline. Having that option might be the best incentive for a casino to keep delivering on its promises.

• Vancouver says no dice to gambling. Three weeks ago the city council voted to reject a downtown casino. The CBC quoted Mayor Gregor Robertson this way: "[It] doesn't fit with Vancouver's global brand as the world's most livable city, as the green capital of the world, as a hotbed for innovation in clean and digital technology in resource management."

• Pittsburgh casino falls short. Opened in 2009, the Rivers Casino was expected to deliver $427 million in gambling revenues during its first year, but came in at $217 million. "Not living up to its hype," was the assessment offered by Frank Gamrat of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

Then-governor Ed Rendell disagreed. Pennsylvania's nine state-owned casinos "have surpassed my expectations by tenfold," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last year. "When you consider that tax revenues from gaming last year surpassed those of Nevada, that 125,000 seniors have had their property taxes eliminated, that another 235,000 had their property taxes cut by 50 percent, that the [Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team] aren't playing in Kansas City because of gaming funds, I'm ecstatic about gaming."

Cheers and jeers
• Cheers to Gov. Mark Dayton for his road-fix initiative. Since 2003, Minnesota has fallen behind on maintaining state roads. It's the sort of neglect that the state can't afford. Money spent on routine, timely repairs saves big money over the long haul. A study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that every dollar spent on normal maintenance saves $6 to $14 if a road is allowed to deteriorate to the point that it must be rebuilt.

Minnesota's abundance of roads — the fifth largest system in the country — and its harsh climate does terrible damage to pavement, as any driver knows. When you add in snow removal, Minnesota is an enormously high-maintenance state. Dayton's $400 million infusion from other highway and bridge funds should help. Even so, Minnesota will continue to fall behind its repair targets by more than $1 billion over the next decade, according to MnDOT estimates.

• Jeers to Dayton for not mentioning that local roads and streets are in even worse shape. Thanks in part to steep cuts in state aid over the last decade, county roads and city streets in many communities are reverting to rubble.

In metrospect: Stories you may have missed
• St. Croix County, Wisconsin, is the Twin Cities' fastest-growing suburb. USA Today analyzes Census data in this report, focusing on the point that far-in suburbs and far-out suburbs grew the fastest over the last decade.

• Americans like their cities spacious. Will high costs and environmental concerns change their minds? Witold Rybczynski offers a sound analysis in the Wilson Quarterly.

• Forecasting the really deep future. Graeme Wood's piece in says that the past is of decreasing importance when projecting the future. He quotes the astronomer Martin Rees: "It won't be humans who witness the sun's demise: It will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug."

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Comments (10)

Our team of committed citizens successfully led the fight to prevent the expansion of casino gambling in Vancouver. Our allies included the medical health officer of Vancouver, many health professionals and addiction researchers, and a group of 18 senior police with experience in organized crime, money laundering, and loan sharking.

Most casino projects sell the dream of marketing to a high end clientele of sophisticated and wealthy gamblers. The fact is that this market is very small--real wealthy people gamble only rarely, and never enough to support casinos outside of the large specialized markets such as Las Vegas, Macau, Singapore, and Monaco.

Many of the people in the "high-roller" category are actually addicted gamblers playing with the mortgage on their kids' house. We found two cases of murder-suicide in the Vancouver area linked to individuals who suffered catastrophic losses at the high-roller table. People within the industry will tell how common it is for clientele to wear adult diapers or mess themselves, even in the high-roller rooms.

The biggest surprise we found in our research was the severity of gambling addiction, and its importance to the casino business model. 35-50% of casino revenues consistently come from problem or addicted gamblers. This is the true bread and butter of the casino industry, and it should not be promoted by government. And the problem is worsening with the increased prevalence of gambling--including online betting. The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that almost 5% of Ontario children in grades 7-12 show signs of problem gambling. These youth (mainly boys) are 11 times more likely than their peers to engage in gang violence, sell drugs, and carry a gun. They are 18 times more likely to attempt suicide.

The casino industry is the business equivalent of entering or succumbing to the poverty cycle. Choosing gambling as a form of economic development is like choosing to quit school and taking a job on the factory line in an industry that will move off-shore within 5 years. The money might seem good at first, but one day, and sooner than you think, you'll find yourself trapped in a cycle you can't escape.

Good luck to you with your choice, Minneapolis. Visit to find out how we defeated this in our own town.

Although I am pretty leery of any expansion of gambling in Minnesota, I think it makes perfect sense to put a casino on Block E. Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow's ear! And yes, Minneapolis IS that desperate when it comes to Block E.
As for the state's compact with the tribes regarding Indian gambling, whose dumb idea was it that those casinos should be tax free? If our Native communities want to block the opening of a non-Native casino, they'd better start their fair share of taxes on the profits.

There is a good reason Block-E is suffering economically: Insane sales tax. People who live in the city won't shop there. I refuse to.

I spent most of the last decade living in Minneapolis as a student, very, very close to downtown. I avoided shopping. Why? Because the sales tax is a whopping 10.5%.

The sales tax is high because the stadiums, funded by government and lining the pockets of only the super-rich. The people in Minneapolis don't want these stadiums: we want things that serve the public good-- and cultural centers that benefit ALL people in the city.

It's the people in the suburbs demanding stadiums, so build them there. But they don't want to pay for them! They think that it's somehow OKAY to charge extra cash to the people of Minneapolis for their entertainment. They drive in, enjoy, and drive away without spending anything extra.

Meanwhile, entertainment centers like Block-E right next-door suffer. And their obnoxious SUVs cram the entirety of downtown after every event.

So how many products and services did I purchase as a near-downtown resident over a decade? None. How many times did I eat at a restaurant downtown with 10.5% tax? I can count them on one hand.

If the residents can't shop there, then something is seriously wrong. It's not affordable to shop downtown. It's not affordable to eat. It's not affordable to park.

A couple weeks ago, I took a risk: I visited the AMC theater in Block E, thinking I could watch a movie and get my "Park and Shop" parking validated.

Nearly nobody was in the theater. And despite being right across the street from the Park and Shop, they could not validate my parking.

Now an exploitative casino? Haven't you already done enough damage to Minneapolis with your stadiums and your sales taxes?

Screw that.

Sad to say, I think Dave Thompson is right in saying yes,, Minneapolis is that desperate when it comes to Block E. It needs help big time.

And while we're at it, can we now learn that it's a mistake to clear blocks for redevelopment in a city core? The city went to great expense to move the Schubert to give the Block E developer and architect "a clean palette". Look at what we got. And though the Conservatory did not clear out from Nicollet to LaSalle, it did clear out 8th. to 9th along the mall. And look how that turned out. Oh, you can't. Its replacement is already gone.

Cities are organic. Architects and develoeprs should be charged with workiing in their surroundings, not with working on clean pallettes. Want a clean pallette? Go build in a corn field, like the rest of your buddies. Want to work in the city, check in with Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Alex Krieger and deal with your surroundings, not obliterate them.

And city officials -- don't let them.

I don't think the sales tax is as big a deal as David makes it out to be. I know I don't even think about it.

What killed Block E is very, very, VERY poor urban design, period. It's a perfect demonstration of everything NOT to do when designing an urban building. It's downright pedestrian unfriendly. Let me count the ways:

1. No street-level windows (or what's there is papered over). This kills any street ambiance and research shows it encourages petty crime.

2. No street-level retail through the main door at all. You walk in the front door and immediately have to go up or down. It's completely non-intuitive.

3. No direct pass-through from front to back. It's like two (or more) completely separate buildings built to look like one.

4. It's an indoor mall. ??!??!? People don't go to the city to shop in a mall. They already have that in the suburbs. See City Center, Gaviidae, the whole skyway system, etc. etc. etc.

5. No public space whatsoever.

6. Low ceilings and narrow stairways make it a claustrophobe's nightmare.

7. Exterior design in no way blends in with the surroundings and is the worst in "nouveau banlieue." It fairly screams, "kitsch here!"

Beyond design fundamentals, there is absolutely nothing of note in the building. Not a single thing I can't find hundreds of other places.

It's a complete disaster from top to bottom.

Of the above, I find Sandy's perspective most compelling. I am very skeptical that a downtown casino would build tourism in any positive way. Mr. Lux himself has said that at the price he paid for Block E it would be profitable as a parking lot. Surely there are more attractive options than a casino.

There are plenty of smart people in Minneapolis. Why, then, is our urban design so consistently poor? There are still many empty blocks downtown that were cleared as part of the Gateway project a half century ago!! Those empty blocks suck the life out of the surrounding area. How could the city not have learned from that debacle, and allowed Block E to be built as it was?

We'd be better off with the dive bars and porn shops that were there before. At least Hennepin Avenue had some vitality then.

Several thoughts:

1. John, you're right about the empty blocks, but I remember Hennepin with the dive bars and porn shops. Those places' customers made the north end of the avenue an area few others wanted to walk though. (Nor was there much reason; businesses selling things most of us wanted had fled.)

2. David is right about the cost of parking downtown -- if one even can find it. I have a small four-cylinder sedan, and on the bsis of gasoline prices, it costs less for me to drive to a store in St. Louis Park, Edina or even Plymouth than to park to go to a downtown store.

3. If street life in Minneapolis is pretty minimal except at noon and 5:30 p.m., one reason is the skyway system -- wonderfully quiet, clean, easy and comfortable in January and July.

4. Expansion of gambling seems more than a little tainted by racism: yet another example of white people seeing something Native Americans have and deciding to take it away from them. White people broke treaty after treaty to take the natives' lands. After several centuries, American Indians finally found a way to get something back, and many tribes are clawing their way up from poverty. So now white folks don't think it's right that some tribes are making money and their mombers are prosperous, not impoverished.

It's time for Americans to stop think there's a free lunch and start acting like adults who pay for what they want. The way that's done is called taxation. Taxes in this country are among the lowest in the industralized world, but to hear some politians talk, one would think "the government" (which is not some alien entity but th organization by which we do our collective work) is tearing bread out of childrens' mouths.

I think one of the reasons our urban design is so poor is we do not look outside of ourselves. Spend a week in Vancouver without touching a car or bus. It's really easy to do! We walked everywhere when we were out there. It's a very dense city but feels very open. This is due to smart design choices. Many buildings have a gradiated height. At the sidewalks they are two stories, a bit further back, three stories, then four a bit further back from that, then, and only then, do they shoot up to 10/15/30 stories.

Everything in Vancouver is designed to be walkable and bikeable. The transit is cheap or even free in many places. It's a completely different thing than we know anywhere in this country, including New York City. We need to learn from places like Vancouver.

Block E and the surrounding area already has a crime problem. A casino will only make it worse by providing even more easy prey to local thugs.