Thursday, May 31, 2012

Note from Maumee: Glamor

I'm back in Maumee, Ohio, for a few days, visiting my parents and siblings. I have a few brief notes on recent developments in the built environment of the Toledo Metro Area. This is the first of them.

The day after we arrived marked the grand opening of the new Hollywood Casino, over in East Toledo, just a few blocks from where my dad lived as a teenager.

A few years ago, the state legislature approved casino gambling on four sites, one in each of Ohio's four largest cities. The Hollywood Casino is the second of those to open. There's a great buzz of excitement surrounding the opening, in part because the casino is supposed to bring more than 1200 jobs to an old industrial city, and in part because the whole thing is just so glamorous.

These two sources of excitement are not unconnected.

In its oldest sense, glamour refers to a kind of bewitchment that affects the senses, especially one that creates a deceptive appearance.

It seems to me the civic leaders of Toledo are held spellbound by the pretty shiny thing they have created, unable to see the folly of pinning the economic hopes of a region on an economic activity that is fundamentally parasitic on other economic activity.

This is a city that used to make things of real value for people. Aside from Jeeps, Toledo was best known for the manufacture of glass products of various kinds, including glass containers - the bailiwick of my father, before his retirement, and of my brother currently - and fiberglass.

But now the city is turning to an enterprise that promises only to part fools from their money in the name of "entertainment", hoping surrounding business will be buoyed by the influx of fresh suckers, er, tourists from other regions, who are supposed to flock here to be fleeced, er, entertained.

To be fair, there is some spillover effect: according to yesterday's edition of The Blade, the new pawn shop just down the street is already turning a brisk business.

It also troubles me that, as the casino opens, all the local media outlets are so unabashedly boosterish about it, reveling in the glamor, the glitz, the excitement, the hopes, without so much as a breath of doubt or criticism.

I suppose, to be fair, much of that doubt and criticism would have been aired back when the legislature was voting to legalize gambling.

Also, to be fair, The Blade did include some criticism of the casino in its coverage of the grand opening, but none of it addressed the main point that any economic activity represented by casino gambling is parasitic, derivative, and quite likely ephemeral.

No, the most trenchant criticism is that the casino isn't as good as the already thriving casinos in Detroit, especially because it doesn't give away a lot of "free" perks to lure seniors from other cities to ride chartered buses to the shearing shed, er, gaming floor.

And therein can be found another blind spot in the boosterism surrounding the casino, a hasty generalization from one or two instances of success.

One thought I had, when I first heard of the casino, was that it would be "another Portside." Back in the 1980s, there was a rage for "festival marketplaces", bright and airy open-plan but still enclosed shopping malls patterned after the South Street Seaport in New York City. South Street Seaport was very successful in its day, so clearly, festival marketplaces are economic magic!

Toledo, in its wisdom, built Portside in an effort to bring some of that magic to its failing downtown . . . the problem being one of context. South Street Seaport is in a part of NYC that was already very busy. People would have to go out of their way to go to Portside . . . to find nothing of great importance, and nothing at all that couldn't be had more cheaply and conveniently out at one of the suburban malls.

After the initial excitement faded, Portside's fortunes fell. Soon enough, it passed through what I thought of then as "the novelty t-shirt phase" after the only product, it seemed, one could still buy there, then finally closed its doors. There have been several attempts to repurpose the building - it was, briefly, a science museum - but without notable success.

(I don't actually know what goes on with the building now. I'll find out while I'm here.)

At about the same time, as Michael Moore documented in Roger and Me, Flint, Michigan tried to work the same festival-marketplace magic, with much the same results.

So I think it is with casino gambling. Vegas is notably successful so, as long as one is willing to squint at the decline of Atlantic City, there is one count in favor of the view that casinos are economic magic. Indian tribes have done well with casinos on reservation land, so there's another count in favor. Detroit's casinos also seem to be thriving.

So, casinos must be economic magic!

And here we are with casinos in Cleveland and Toledo, with casinos still to come in Columbus and Cincinnati.

Do you see the problem, yet?

One casino in a region is a novelty, and may be able to draw in enough suckers, er, customers with enough disposable income - or intense enough addiction to draw from non-disposable income - to stay afloat and bring a little spill-over benefit to a local community.

But, especially in periods of economic decline or stagnation, there has to be a limited pool of such customers, and competition is likely to become fierce as casinos proliferate.

After the initial excitement and interest fades, are people really going to come to Toledo, to a glitzy Art Decoid casino by a highway interchange, rather than Detroit or Windsor or Cleveland or Cincinnati, which is a city that at least has something of a nightlife downtown?

And, really, would we want them to?


Anonymous said...

Good stuff, all around. Besides agreeing with you, you've got me curious about the current use of Portside.... What did you find out?

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