After millions of dollars were used to buy and convert 320 acres into a bustling airport-city for supply and logistics firms, Wayne County taxpayers wound up with a horse track. How a power struggle inside the county executive office led to a $35-million white elephant.
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In April, the Pinnacle Race Course, a 1-mile oval track located just south of Detroit Metropolitan Airport, was expected to host the second running of the Michigan Derby, a prep race for the Kentucky Derby — the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The problem is, the track in Huron Township is shuttered. No horses will run this year. The facility, which opened in July 2008 with tens of millions of dollars of public investment, was to be a hub of bustling activity with spinoff job creation and a lasting economic impact on the region — but it never was able to remain viable. And it closed in November 2010.
Ambitious horse track owner and former Ann Arbor banker Jerry Campbell, and a hard-driving Wayne County appointee, Turkia Mullin, touted the project as an economic juggernaut. The facility was to include a 200,000-square-foot retail center, luxury boxes, and a large family picnic area. Campbell and Mullin predicted as many as 1,300 jobs would be created to support the venture. The complex, they said, would quickly become a destination attraction for businesses, trade, and tourism. Instead, the project’s long and complicated path to failure has left the property in a condition that may not be economically viable any time soon.
By most accounts, the track should never have been built. Horse racing, once a popular pastime, fell out of favor years ago as new casinos — along with stiffer competition from professional sports teams and other forms of entertainment — drew younger fans away from the track. And because its patrons are aging, the horse racing industry had already begun to experience an overall downturn. Reflective of the trend, Ladbroke Detroit Race Course in Livonia — one of the state’s top tourist attractions when it opened in 1950 — closed in 1998, due to declining revenue. Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon, the state’s lone remaining thoroughbred-racing facility (formerly owned by Campbell), closed in 2007.
So how was it that the Pinnacle Race Course was approved and built using millions of dollars in taxpayer money? Mulugetta Birru, Wayne County’s economic developer at the time the track was proposed, says he opposed the project. He recommended to his boss, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, that the development be located elsewhere. “The horse track was never part of my master plan to draw logistics businesses to that area of the county,” Birru says. “But my advice, based on years of working in economic development, was ignored. Following my objections, I quickly found out a group below me was pushing for the project. I was eventually let go, and Mullin stepped into my position.”
In 1999, under the Ed McNamara administration, Wayne County made the first payment on what would ultimately become a $50-million, 320-acre land purchase in rural Huron Township. The county, under the direction of then-economic developer Dewey Henry, envisioned a multifaceted development that would include hotels, office buildings, research centers, light manufacturing facilities (particularly for companies that rely on just-in-time delivery schedules), and a golf course.
It was all part of Henry’s master plan to transform vacant land near Detroit Metro and Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti into the kind of bustling economic hotspot that surrounds other prosperous airports nationwide. Although the direction of the project changed some in the ensuing years, when Ficano succeeded McNamara as county executive, the basic idea remained for the creation of a new airport-city, or aerotropolis.
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