This site contains commercial content. Please practice responsible gambling.

Political Discourse Stays Pitched As Northville Downs Relocation Prospects Dim

Town supervisor continues to catch heat as Feb. 28 deadline looms




Last Updated:

Read more about author
harness racing italy hippodrome

During a public comment period Tuesday at the final Board of Trustees meeting of the year in Plymouth Township, a woman named Marika Diamond rose to the podium to make her voice heard on a proposed project in the sleepy Detroit suburb.

Diamond let it be known that she was opposed to the project, namely because it would increase crime and traffic and adversely impact local businesses. She added that it would “alter the characteristics of Plymouth Township” before closing her remarks.

Just what was this ominous development that Diamond was up in arms about? A Meijer supermarket. But she just as easily could have used the same bullet points to oppose the relocation of the Northville Downs harness racing facility to Plymouth Township, as a gentleman named Dale Bernhardt had — in far more pointed terms — a few minutes earlier.

Bernhardt began by making it clear that he was responding to a quote Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise gave to MI Bets in November. In discussing what might transpire after the highly contentious track situation is resolved, Heise said, “The political opposition in Plymouth Township will simply move on to another manufactured crisis.”

“The opposition, which is most of Plymouth Township, has been called political for the nine months now,” Bernhardt testified. “So give me one example where we wanted Republican Heise gone or we wanted another party to win the 2024 election? … Mr. Heise can’t. He is just looking for sympathy or trying to deflect when backing a dead industry that is extremely unpopular with the residents.

“We are simply trying to stop the destruction. We will not be responsible for your mistakes. … Mr. Heise, you tell the families of those who become addicted to gambling and alcohol from this gambling site that you did this. … You tell those stuck in gridlock traffic due to the warehouses and the gambling site that you did this. When a hydrogen spinoff company can’t find land here because a gambling site took 128 acres, you tell them you’re responsible. When Plymouth Township gets stuck with a bankrupt racetrack like Huron Township, you tell our residents that you did this.

“You act like a dictator. You don’t engage the public up front to get their input. It stays a secret or notification through minimal means. … You don’t know how to communicate or you don’t care to. … You would rather call us libertarians, RINOs, a dark money machine. Heise’s quotes are intended to dismiss and minimize all of us.”

In a phone interview with MI Bets, Heise classified Bernhardt’s testimony as “over the top,” adding, “It’s very unfair and very political. He has a whole list of grievances against me and the township. … He’s just flat-out wrong on a lot of these things. He’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s very short on the facts.”

‘Timing for them may not be good’

Fairly or not, Heise has taken a beating over his support of Northville Downs’ relocation to Plymouth Township. But with the track recently re-upping for a handful of early 2024 dates at its existing location and its owners striking an increasingly uncommunicative stance with township leaders (as well as MI Bets, which has seen numerous requests for comment ignored) on the final steps necessary to bring the project to a vote, one wonders whether the town is tearing itself apart over a project that won’t come all that close to crossing the goal line.

When asked if his support for the track’s relocation had wavered in the face of the aforementioned dynamics, Heise shifted gears a bit.

“I’m really more concerned about this as a business decision from the Carlos’ perspective right now,” he said, referring to the family that owns Michigan’s last remaining commercial racetrack. “It’s now been a year since they came on the scene here. When they first arrived, there was a sense of urgency. They wanted to have a groundbreaking in summer of 2023, and then the bottom dropped out. With the exception of one meeting and some Zoom calls, it’s been pretty stagnant. I don’t know much about the horse industry, but Michigan certainly hasn’t helped it much.

“Given all of the roadblocks, economic and political, that are in Michigan, the timing for them may not be good.”

Timing is now of the essence. The property’s Planned Unit Development option expires on Feb. 28, a full year after it was first approved by the Board of Trustees, and the Carlos have yet to ask for an extension.

Zoning, growth remain sticking points

Plymouth Township is the sort of place where even the prospect of a Michigan-bred supermarket chain opening an outpost in town is enough to rankle a certain faction of residents. But Bernhardt says it’s not that simple.

“We are not against growth, but desire well-managed growth that includes residential input,” Bernhardt wrote in an email to MI Bets. “Citizens feel powerless to stop both the planning commission and trustees from freely violating zoning that businesses and residents rely on for their future decisions. Residents want their property values to be maintained along with their quality of life.”

As for that zoning issue, Bernhardt added, “The residential racetrack opposition has questioned why the board rezoned this Michigan International Technology Center parcel of property via the usage of a Planned Unit Development designation. Currently it is zoned as light industrial with emphasis on high-tech, although the PUD is allowing that zoning to be, in their words, ‘flexible’ to allow the gambling facility and racetrack. The goal of MITC has always been to attract high-tech industries, which a gambling site and racetrack is not.”

If the land proposed for the racetrack’s relocation were publicly owned, Bernhardt might have an open-and-shut case. But the land is owned by the Carlo family, who, as far as anyone knows, still would like to build a racetrack there. Hence, the need for public-private negotiations.

“I took office in 2016 and most of the development we’ve seen is on brownfield sites and old prison sites that have never been on the tax rolls,” said Heise, whose description fits the Carlos’ parcel. “We’re taking old, vacant, unused buildings and parcels and we’re taking environmentally contaminated parcels and we’re turning them into job-creating businesses, warehouses, light industrial, health care, and residential.

“I’ve lived in Wayne County all my life and I’ve seen what happens to communities that are stagnant and floundering. That is not happening in Plymouth Township, and I’m damn proud of the work we’ve done over the past seven years.”

Photo: Davide Mombelli/Corbis via Getty Images