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Is A Downtown Mpls. Casino Worth Betting On?

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV and Lindsey Seavert, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – For more than 30 years, efforts to bring vitality and safety to downtown Minneapolis have struggled over Block E. The entertainment district has been revamped, redesigned and renewed, but it is still falling short of attracting steady crowds of customers.

However, plans unveiled in a slick news conference on Wednesday aim to change the outlook.

“This is sort of the promise of excitement,” said Phillip Jaffee.

Jaffee is one of the partners in Alatus LLC, the developer who purchased the failed complex in July 2010 at a deep discount. What he and his partner, Robert Lux, are excited about is their plan for an upscale state-run casino, known as “Minnesota Live.”

Jaffee and Lux have been working behind the scenes with downtown business interests and lawmakers to research, develop and sell the plan to transform this part of downtown. At the news conference, the group unveiled artist’s drawings of the glass tower, which would house several floors of video slot machines, bars, restaurants and retail.

Market research by the developers show their plan is capable of attracting huge crowds of affluent customers, who now shy away from spending much time downtown.

“We want this to be the engine that fills the Orpheum, the Pantages and other theaters. We want hotels full and restaurants active,” Jaffee said.

“What makes projects in an urban setting successful are people. It all starts with people and what we really need is safety,” added Lux.

Studies project the casino complex could attract 5.6 million visitors each year. And the attraction of state-run video gambling could generate upwards of $125 million in additional state revenue. That doesn’t include the economic impact from a projected 2,400 to 2,800 permanent jobs.

“A lot of these jobs just transfer from one place to another,” said John McCarthy, who is executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

McCarthy calls the plan a “slippery slope,” which will only expand gambling and requires expensive state regulation.

“The other concern we have is if you say yes now, you can’t say no to Bloomington, St. Cloud or every other city in the state,” he said.

History shows many plans have come and gone around Block E. The turn of the century vitality slowly disappeared until two decades ago, the city demolished what was left into a parking lot in the late 1980s.

Then, when crime took center stage, the famed Shubert Theatre moved out. That’s when the current shops moved in, but many say the problem is that they could be found in any suburb.

“They tried to make it the Mall of American downtown and people just go out to the mall instead coming downtown to city where you pay for parking and everything,” said downtown resident Jim McCann, who said he would frequent a new downtown casino.

When it comes to a new casino plan, the nearby Fogo de Chao restaurant says only crowds will provide a jackpot.

“Hotels will be a busier, stadiums will be fuller, restaurants will have more business. I can’t imagine it being bad for the city,” said customer services manager Matt Roth.

Some worry about just that.

Joe Elliot, who takes college classes downtown, says he is unsure if a casino will bring a new chapter of change.

“A lot of young people my age don’t think right. They got their mind on the wrong things, with the casino being here, more drinking, it’s going to be bad,” said Elliot.

The Alatus developers argue just the opposite, saying their studies have shown that bringing more people downtown helps create a safer environment.

The bill to give the project the go-ahead will be introduced in the legislature on Thursday. If lawmakers give it the green light, renovation could begin right away with a goal of completion in 2013.

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