Horse racing signaled a ray of hope for airport aerotropolis


The main building of the former Pinnacle Racecourse in Romulus sits vacant, barely five years since its initial construction. (Google photo)

Site plan showing the park at full operating capacity.
At one time, horseracing was a very active spectator sport in Michigan. Although the Downriver area had not housed a course during the sport's heyday, many course were within an hours' driving distance.

Horseracing results would religiously be published in box-score format in the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, with many individual events easily handling half a million dollars on a typical night. Results would also be aired during the sports reports on radio stations. The courses at Hazel Park, Northville and - most notably - Ladbrooke DRC became part of the fan's subconscious.
Beginning in the 1990s, the local mainstream attitude began shifting away from the racetracks and onto casino gaming. The opening of Casino Windsor in the early 1990s attracted a steady stream of Detroiters who would take full advantage of a favorable currency exchange rate.
Detroit could not wait to get itself directly involved and, with the backing of then-Mayor Coleman Young, was able to start the ball rolling toward the three permanent casinos now dominating the downtown area.

This would only serve to limit or curtail horse racing operations in southeastern Michigan. Even with computerized betting entering the realm of possibility, the glitz and glamour was no longer found on a dirt track; it was now found in the electronic slot machine or roulette table. By the late 1990s Ladbrooke DRC, closest to Downriver, was but a memory. Yet it would not shut out gambling and racing fans completely.

Main entrance.

The indoor betting room.

A horse stall.
At about the same time, Detroit Metro Airport's facilities were finally undergoing a needed modernization. The new mid-field terminal and runway expansions showed the potential for increased capacity. With this in mind, the new Airport Authority sought to develop the lands directly north and south of the airport perimeter, which then consisted of either farmland, broken parcels with scattered residences, and even dumping grounds.

When the idea of the Aerotropolis first emerged, it sought to target most lands along I-94 between Metro and Willow Run Airports as the potential area for Michigan's largest logistics hub. Research & development in both the industrial and medical fields were imagined and thought of first as a way to draw on the untapped new capacities a more efficient airport could bring. North of Metro Airport, the city of Romulus looked to step in another direction by announcing plans to develop two central meccas: a general casino and a racino; the latter being a new idea combining gambling with horse racing under the same roof.

Howling protests over these proposals came from the east, as Detroit did not desire their gambling profits to be siphoned off. Between their efforts, plus ensuing confusion over an Indian tribe's right to the land and their subsequent agenda bumping heads with developer Magna Entertainment's visions, and owing perhaps to overall public sentiment growing weary of the entire issue, these lands north of the airport were never developed... in spite of the large billboards still trumpeting the idea years later.
South of the airport, land acquisition was moving along at a slow pace. With some landowners reluctant to sell, more people wanted to see what the Airport Authority had in store for their Aerotropolis, but public releases showed little other than what was already known. Nothing concrete other than a general ring-road layout had been decided upon; no list of potential vendors or overall interest had been publicized. With available land parcels being checkered as purchases stalled, the Aerotropolis idea was in danger of sinking.

An idea would therefore begin to postulate: Although not in the desired framework of the Aerotropolis' makeup, perhaps its existence could be jumpstarted by the construction of a horse racetrack independent of all prior publicized efforts. By 2002, any discussion on the area had to be seen as some semblance of progress, as well as a possible answer for fans of a sport vanishing all too quickly in Michigan.

The specifications are developed to make the facility a huge success

"The airport. which has been a distraction to a lot of developers, is an attraction to us. Other than a neon blinking light that says "Come," all of the factors are there for us to locate in Romulus."
- LORNE KUMER
President, Magna Entertainment
When the plans were officially presented in November 2003, the racetrack was proposed as part of a revamp of the airport's surrounding lands, phase one of an aerotropolis plan. 

The building specifics would include the following in Phase One:  with an estimated value of $350 million, this 212 acre parcel would result in 3,300 direct & indirect jobs being created.  A potential of $2.5 million in property taxes for Romulus was hoped for.  Magna Entertainment Company (MEC) had bought the land from the county for $28 million; the company owned fourteen similar tracks around the country.

There would be three different tracks: a 1 mile turf track, a 1 1/8 mile dirt track for thoroughbred racing, and a 7/8 mile harness track.  A total of 21 barns (36 stalls in each), and a pair of three-story buildings with 52 living units were to be constructed for use as grooms' quarters.

A theater with a capacity of 2,500, plus 1,500 interactive betting machines would be included in the main complex.

Phase Two would have been built on 72 acres, with over 675,000 square feet of mixed-use retail, hotel and convention space.  It would be built only dependent on market conditions.  Since Magna also operated an manufacturing plant in Toronto tied into the auto industry, a 33,000 square foot research and development site was also planned for the nearby area.

It was estimated the horse track could be up and running within 18 months.  The idea in principle was approved in December 2003, with the subsequent years geared toward land purchase, owner relocation, and utility work.  By the end of 2007, official approval for its construction was on the table, and approved by the following totals:
To construct Pinnacle Racecourse:     YES:  2,664    NO:  2,343 
To construct local casinos in region: YES:  2,879     NO:  2,211

Jerry Campbell built the Pinnacle Racetrack and was the head of Post-It Stables.

Governor Granholm wanted to slash the horse-racing budget in 2009.

"We are looking to take things off the table. We are not looking to add things to the table."
- MEGAN BROWN
Deputy Press Secretary for
Gov. Jennifer Granholm

Trying and struggling to fill a limited niche

Only the basic frills were ever completed: a grandstand of 1,000 versus the 4,000 originally planned for.  Despite this, the track opened for a partial horseracing season in summer 2008.  Its early highlight was likely hosting a "Michigan Sires Showcase" in the fall of that year.  By November, Pinnacle was dubbed a success, and plans began for further expansion, which included badly-needed widening of the Sibley Road / Vining Road intersection.

However, what proved to be the first of many state budget slashes during the first part of 2009 threatened to put a damper on Pinnacle's first full year.  Management, however, was still confident of a full season.  Per Michigan Racing Commissioner Christine White, the budget was cut from $3.4 million to $2 million.  A total of 101 races were expunged from the schedule due to insufficient funding.

However, just one week later, the News-Herald would report that the entire racing schedule was restored by the State House Appropriations Committee, although it needed approval from both the State Senate and Governor Jennifer Granholm.
Granholm would veto this without question, as the initial $1.4 million deduction was part of her wider plan to slash $304 million out of the statewide budget.  Deputy Press Secretary Megan Brown warned not to expect a return to exactly what had been.  "We are looking to take things off the table (with regards to state budgets)," she said.  "We are not looking to add things to the table." 

Although Granholm later did grudgingly approve the restored funding, the administration's thought process undoubtedly was:  Why refund the racing budget when the State of Michigan still has declining tax revenue overall?  Perhaps answering to this, Post-It owner Jerry Campbell offered to foot the bill of between $136,000 and $179,000 himself in order to restore the full season without state taxpayer contribution.  That offer was not seriously considered.  Campbell made it clear he did not want budgets lowered to the point the horsemen (trainers, etc.) would leave for other states. 
In spite of these hiccups, the 2009 season concluded fairly successful due to a welcome gift.  The Michigan Horsemen Benevolent & Protection Association had contributed $500,000 of its own purse money to Pinnacle operations in order to recover 74 lost race days.  The complex would also receive $1 million of free dirt from Wayne County; earth excavated from Detroit Metro Airport's latest runway construction.  This dirt would be used in the horse barns in order to raise their elevations.

With a $30 million investment to date, Pinnacle still generated a total of 1,000 direct & indirect jobs, and was still contributing $1 million in taxes to Wayne County.  Still in the works were the permanent 4,000-seat grandstand, 600 additional horse stalls (bringing the total to 1,200), a restaurant and other retailers. 

"I see this as an experiment
to see if we can deliver
speed, speed, speed."
- ROBERT FICANO
Wayne County Executive
Owing to somewhat disappointing attendance figures, the temporary grandstand was no longer being utilized.  Instead, a festival tent was erected nearby where many of the public's outdoor activities took place.

The 2010 season began as planned, but further attendance woes resulted in the cut of weekly races from four to two.  Still, they were getting by.

The track to success gets tricky -- who shoulders the blame?

In June 2010, the Huron Township School District reviewed its tax records and claimed no tax money had come from Pinnacle for that tax period. The district contacted the Township personnel to ask about the missing funds. There was some confusion over who was responsible for this; the township pointed fingers at the school district and at some of its own departments. The matter eventually settled in between the Huron Township Treasurer's office and Wayne County offices. Had there been a tax bill mixup? At first, it did not appear so: the county's records showed no taxes were owed on the property.

The problem was finally traced to the Wayne County Land Bank. The land bank was in place for less-than-ideal property that could be sold at a reduced price to get that land overhauled, active and on the tax rolls again (somewhat resembling a Brownfield District). However, when Pinnacle initially purchased the property from Wayne County, most likely a clerical error did not remove the property from the land bank. In fact, the land was due to remain in the land bank until 2013 and - even though it had been active for two-plus seasons - it was still in a Brownfield zone (having formerly been a dump site).

‚ÄčThe eventual ruling on this issue was simply put: If the official paperwork still declared the land was in the land bank in 2009 - whether or not it actually was - no taxes could legally be collected no matter what type of activity was occurring on the property or its buildings.

"Of course, if the racetrack failed, maybe the powers that be might concentrate their efforts on developing the area around the airport by sticking to their original plan, which involved high-tech facilities that brought in high-skilled, high-paying jobs.  Wouldn't that be a nice change of pace?"
-KARL ZIOMEK
Former Editor, The News-Herald
Upon further investigation, even before the school district made its inital request regarding the tax payment, it was found Pinnacle management had gone to the Michigan Tax Tribunal, asking for a lower assessment on the buildings & grounds.  Still, according to the paperwork mentioned above, Pinnacle technically didn't have any real property to declare.  Management also sought to place a "land division" on the parcel, and sell part of the divided parcel to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians for $179,000.  The Indians' hope was to place a casino in the Aerotropolis area after all, despite Magna's failure to construct one north of I-94 a few years earlier.  But according to state law, a land division could not legally take place unless the original owner was paying property taxes. 
In effect, the matter came full-circle.  And with the Chippewa Indian tribe's plans to erect their casino, it placed Wayne County's developing plans for a Smartzone development for the Aerotropolis on the back burner... even though Michigan had not given approvals for any casino in that area.  

The property would end up being foreclosed on by January of 2012, headed to auction after March of that year, and fixtures sold off that summer.  No interest was shown in the property or its grounds for the next four years except by metal scrappers and scavengers, who ultimately looted the buildings and grounds, stripping most everything of value.

2016:  A possible return to the original course and purpose?

In January 2016, seemingly without warning, demolition began on the main public structure on-site.  Two weeks later, a front-page article in the Detroit Free Press revealed the Chippewa Indian Tribe acquired a "critical mass" of property in the area surrounding the Pinnacle property, as well as a failed megachurch's facility nearby.  Rumors began that the Tribe may build its casino after all, with the mega-church serving as a human resources location for members of the tribe. 

A different view came from Ypsilanti resident John Ottino, who expressed interest in purchasing Pinnacle in order to construct a 2.5 mile performance track for vehicles (to be part of a "garage community" complex titled Heritage Farms Motorplex Car Condos and Racecourse).  The cold facts would remain toward any buyer: as of 2016 the asking price for the property was $8 million, with an additional $2.3 million owed in back taxes.  Tribe General Counsel John Wernet declined specific comment.

Robert Ficano, now the former Wayne County Executive, would reflect on this failed project more that 12 years after first proposed:  "Some projects work and some don't, but this one didn't cost Wayne County any money.  The private investors are the ones who took the chance on it and they're the ones who took the loss. Wayne County didn't lose any money on it."

Regardless, the Pinnacle Racecourse story is seen by many as one of Ficano's lesser-known blunders, as well as a huge loss for Downriver in terms of potential and performance.

After having been mothballed for over four years, the main building at Pinnacle Racecourse was dismantled in January 2016. (Photo: Scott Bolthouse)

In a somewhat related development, the area north of the airport which was originally to be the home of the racino complex was later geared to host a Tanger outlet mall, with construction set to commence in 2015 and grand opening set for 2016.  After numerous delays, it was announced in April 2017 that the project was permanently shelved due to lack of vendor interest.  The proposed 350,000 square foot mall would have contained ninety stores, and was promoted by New England Development, joined later in partnership by Paragon Holdings.  According to Romulus Development Director Timothy Keyes, any further developments by this partnership were off the table, with the land reverting back to the previous owner.  This would be the third such project in the metropolitan area to be shelved or cancelled in the prior twelve months, joining other ventures in Canton and Macomb County.

Proposed local headquarters of Brose Manufacturing, slated for construction in 2018. (Detroit Free Press)
The idea of the airport aerotropolis has not faded over the years. While criticism over its apparent lack of progress has at times been deafening, it must also be understood that the entire concept has been more well-known and successful internationally, and had not been a common business practice in the United States at the time of its initial proposal. The Great Recession of 2008 also stalled progress in the ensuing years.

A 2017 Detroit Free Press article indicated that, while landowners still had over 6,000 acres of available land to offer to potential tenants, groundbreaking on several projects had begun.
In the case of Amazon, they have already started operations from their new facility on Ecorse Road. Brose Manufacturing was also in line (as of 2018) to become Huron Township's biggest employer upon completion of its campus.