Downtown community leaders react to casino proposal for Block E

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May 9, 2011 // UPDATED 11:04 am - May 16, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

Something needs to be done about Block E.


“We can’t have nothing happen there,” said Hennepin Theatre Trust President and CEO Tom Hoch. “I don’t know if they have a Plan B. Block E is an issue for Hennepin Avenue and for Downtown. If this doesn’t go forward, I think we all need to get together and support Alatus in coming together and creating another plan.”


That’s the opinion held by nearly everyone who has any stake in the Downtown area. The Hennepin Avenue retail development has inarguably been on the decline for some time. The vacancy rate within has been steadily rising as one tenant after another closed its doors. Now developer Alatus has unveiled its vision for the project and have been lobbying heavily at the capital in the waning days of the legislative session. The session is scheduled to end on Friday, and the proposal faces long odds. Nevertheless, the Downtown community has weighed in on the proposed casino project.


Like most other area organizations, the Hennepin Theatre Trust has not taken an official position on the proposal. However, Hoch likes the plans for the property – if, in fact, the reality matches the vision. “I think the design has a lot of potential,” said Hoch. “Pictures are fine, but pictures are rarely what actually gets built. Gambling itself isn’t problematic. It’s how it’s going to be operated. It needs to be well operated. If it isn’t, any problems will spill over onto Hennepin. We have worked hard to turn corner on Hennepin Avenue, and we need to support those activities that have been here for the long haul and make sure what goes there continues that momentum.”


A police spokesman echoed the sentiment, stating that Assistant Chief of Police Janee Harteau declared any prosperous, well-run business couldn’t be anything other than an improvement. Drops in loitering and minor crimes have been observed Downtown while Twins games are in progress, but those nuisance crimes start right back up when the game ends. A casino would bring a steadier stream of people into Downtown, which the police feel could help keep crime rates down.


Local businesses would also welcome a shift away from the event-driven nature of Downtown. “The Twins have been nice for us, but it’s slow when the Twins aren’t playing,” said Dave Holcomb, owner of Gluek’s bar. “A nice Vegas-style casino would be a big draw. Downtown has really lost customers in the last few years. There have been all these neighborhood restaurants in places like South Minneapolis that have really been drawing traffic out of Downtown.”


Months before the designs were unveiled, Alatus began meeting with business owners like Holcomb and other members of the Downtown community to gauge their reactions and gather feedback. These discussions are likely why the proposal includes a limited number of restaurant spaces and no performance spaces, a move designed to send visitors out into the area for broader food and entertainment options. Research firm The Innovation Group, a company that specializes in consulting on gambling issues, predicts Minnesota Live could bring in 5.6 million additional visitors to Downtown every year and 84,000 more nights of downtown hotel booking.


Sarah Harris, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID), said the casino proposal sounds like a “very exciting thing for Downtown.” The DID hasn’t taken a formal position on the proposal, but Harris said the number of jobs and visitors the project would generate could be a very positive thing for the city. 


Likewise, the Warehouse District Business Association (WDBA) has not taken an official stance, but WDBA president and Fine Line Music Café owner Dario Anselmo calls it an exciting proposal. “It seems to have a good energy,” he said. “And that’s something that’s definitely not happening with Block E.”


The project would also take a large percentage of vacant Downtown space off the market in one fell swoop.


“To absorb that much vacancy is huge. It would really take a lot of empty space out of the market at once. As Block E stands now, it would take years to backfill that space,” said Andrea Christensen of commercial real estate developer Cassidy Turley. Christensen originally opposed a Downtown casino, but said the ambitious plan from Alatus has made her think again. “When I look at the design, at how they open it up to the street, it’s really an improvement. It brings a lot of light to the corner. I like the taxes it will bring in, and they [Alatus] told me that they’ll be spending $25-$30 million on marketing it around the region. That’s huge. It’ll be a huge regional draw.”


Of all local business and community leaders polled by The Journal, not a single one came out as strongly against the casino proposal. The reaction was similarly one-sided from those we spoke to outside Block E. Yet no matter the reaction, Block E’s transformation into Minnesota Live has an uncertain future at best.


Before a new casino could be built Downtown, proposed legislation would have to be approved to allow gambling outside tribal areas, and right now the fate of that legislation is unclear. Although the bill to allow a casino Downtown was introduced by a pair of GOP legislators, the Republican Party officially opposes an expansion of gambling. Kathryn Tinucci, spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton, said the governor is open to the casino plan if 50 percent of revenues would go to the state. John Stiles, a spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the mayor opposes the expansion of gambling in the state. City Council Member Lisa Goodman supports it, and several labor unions appeared with bill sponsors Rep. John Kriesel and Sen. Doug Magnus to voice their support.


Should the legislative challenges prove too much for the Minnesota Live proposal, Alatus has a backup plan for the site – but isn’t ready to say what that might be just yet. “"We've got some ideas on it," Alatus’ Bob Lux told the Star Tribune. "It doesn't do for the block or the neighborhood what putting a gaming operation in there would, driving all these people."


We will have more on this story as it continues to develop.


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