Can Michael Jackson Sell a Casino Plan To Detroit Voters?

Rejected Developer Hopes So, But Mayor Isn't Thrilled; A Bubble-Enclosed Ride

By Angelo B. Henderson
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

633 words, 8 July 1998, The Wall Street Journal, English
(Copyright (c) 1998, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

DETROIT—One of the losers in the poker game for a casino license here is trying to play Michael Jackson as a wild card.

Donald H. Barden, one of the biggest, wealthiest African-American businessmen, unveiled a plan to build a $1 billion amusement park and casino resort in a partnership with the entertainer. Never mind that Mr. Barden wasn't chosen to receive one of three licenses to open a casino. He is taking Mr. Jackson and his plan straight to the voters of Detroit and the financiers of Wall Street for support.

For Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who has become embroiled in controversy over his exclusion of Mr. Barden, this development is no thriller. Mr. Archer, who also is African-American, has been accused of betraying Detroit's African-American majority by granting the casino licenses to three predominantly white-owned groups, including a mostly Detroit group and ventures involving MGM Grand Inc. and Circus Circus Enterprises Inc.

The mayor described Mr. Barden's initial proposal as one that "did not measure up overall," and said it was too late to submit another.

Mr. Barden said he and Mr. Jackson, who are considering opening amusement parks, resorts and casinos elsewhere, are proposing a complex that would be dubbed the Majestic Kingdom. It would be on a 75-acre tract on the Detroit River downstream from downtown and would feature the "Michael Jackson Thriller Theme Park."

A featured ride, "The Thriller Coaster," would be enclosed in a transparent bubble during the harsh Detroit winter months. Plans also call for an underground aquarium as well as an 800-room "Mansion in the Sky" hotel resort, all personally designed by Mr. Jackson and connected by a monorail to downtown.

But the key to the development, which would probably employ more than 6,000 people, will be a Majestic Star Casino run by Mr. Barden. He hopes this new proposal will be enough to get Detroiters to vote him back into the game in August. One proposal going before the electorate would allow Mr. Barden to be one of the three finalists, and a competing proposal would back the mayor's plan.

"All we want in our home town is a fair chance," Mr. Barden said. He recently traveled with Mr. Jackson to Las Vegas, St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, Namibia and South Africa to explore potential investments. "I know the voters of Detroit are very smart, and they can figure things out, and they know what's good for them. And they know . .. one [casino] should be Detroit-based and Detroit-owned, and that's all we are asking."

In the face of all this, the mayor launched an immediate counteroffensive, calling a news conference and basically declaring that the game is over. He said he and the city council had selected the proposals that offered Detroiters the most jobs and highest tax revenues. (Not even a partnership between Donald Trump and the nation's largest African-American car dealer, Mel Farr, made the cut.)

"Now Mr. Barden wants to circumvent that process," Mr. Archer said. Even if Mr. Barden wins in August, the mayor maintained that legal challenges are probable, and at best Mr. Barden will only force the city to start over.

When asked whether he will counter the Jackson card by recruiting somebody like Motown legend Stevie Wonder, Mr. Archer quipped, "I don't think there is a need for us to ask some prominent, outstanding citizen who does not live in our city to come and say what is in the best interest of our city."