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Block E casino? Minneapolis should hedge its bet

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?

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.”