The opening of the first of four Ohio casinos will test the promise of new jobs, a tax windfall and urban revival in the heart of the Rust Belt.
New signs are up to direct visitors, the sidewalks have been power-washed, crosswalks have been freshly painted and 1,600 people have been hired to inaugurate the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland on Monday.
But don’t look for a Las Vegas-style casino with outsized fountains or attractions meant to look like New York or Paris: the Cleveland casino projects an image of no-nonsense Midwest values.
Tucked into four floors of the old Higbee department store, which starred in the 1983 film “A Christmas Story,” the casino doesn’t stand out amid the downtown skyscrapers. Only understated signs and flags with the Horseshoe logo hint at the art-deco revival look inside.
“It almost makes you want to get dressed up, put on a tuxedo or ball gown and come here,” said Jeff Cohen, a principal of Rock Gaming, a partner in the casino with Caesars Entertainment.
Critics are wary of problems that casinos can bring.
“I think there’s no doubt that any time gambling is expanded or has expanded around the country, you’ve seen an increase in problem and addicted gamblers,” said Rob Walgate, vice president of the American Policy Roundtable which has fought expanded gambling in Ohio.
Ohio opened its doors to casino gambling when voters approved four casinos in 2009, the fifth time in 20 years a gambling expansion was proposed in the state. The previous attempts were rejected.
The 53 percent winning margin came with backers promising new jobs, extra tax revenues for struggling cities and school districts, but opponents, led by church groups, worried about more troubled gamblers and accompanying social ills.
The Cleveland casino has about 2,100 slot machines, 63 table games a 30-table World Series of Poker room and a VIP lounge for high-end gamblers who need a break without mixing with the Rust Belt crowd.
Horseshoe has the ubiquitous casino buffet and a food court with three outlets: Italian, burgers and deli fare. And the casino has deals with nearly a dozen restaurants to offer discounts for loyal gamblers.
There are two bars but no free drinks for compliant gamblers: state law bars complimentary liquor.
Without Vegas-style floor shows and lacking its own hotel, the non-gambling offerings may seem modest, but that’s the point: the casino has aggressively marketed ties to restaurants and hotels and thinks encouraging visitors to sample other attractions will mean they all win.
If done right, that will provide a compelling experience for visitors, according to Marcus Glover, senior vice president and general manager of the casino.
“We feel pretty good about what we’re bringing to the table,” Glover said. “We’re going to put our best foot forward and try to drive as much foot traffic and tourism to this area that we can.”
The casino location underscores an urban trend like Detroit’s and the Caesar-owned Harrah’s at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The urban casino locations have a familiar feel but parking can be an issue in densely developed downtowns like Cleveland, where rates are already up.
The casino expects 5 million visitors a year and said it would generate $100 million a year in taxes, with more than half going to the city, county and school districts in the county in the first full year.
It hired 1,600 people, more than 90 percent of them from the Cleveland area, a region hard-hit by the recession and loss of manufacturing jobs.
The opening in Cleveland will give Ohio’s other casinos a chance to size up how state regulators operate.
“We’re glad to see Cleveland opening,” said Bob Tenenbaum, a spokesman for Penn National Gaming Inc., which will open the Toledo casino May 29.
“We’re extremely confident that our opening will be very smooth and to the satisfaction to the casino control commission.”
Fred Buro, the chief marketing officer for MTR Gaming Group, said the opening of the Cleveland casino is “a bit of a concern.”
MTR owns Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Pennsylvania and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, W.Va., and both are about a two-hour drive from Cleveland.
Buro said the Cleveland casino will likely take some business from Presque Isle and Mountaineer, but that will be offset because MTR is about to open a new casino at its Scioto Downs Racetrack in Columbus, Ohio. “So there should be a net gain for our company,” Buro said.
Cleveland, with a 34 percent poverty rate, ranks among the nation’s poorest big cities and has an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent with 15,500 jobless people. The Horseshoe casino is located minutes from impoverished neighborhoods at the edge of downtown.
The number of troubled gamblers is likely to expand with the arrival of casinos in Ohio, counseling experts agree. Toledo’s casino will open in two weeks, and casinos also are planned in Cincinnati and Columbus over the next year.
The Old Stone Church across from the Cleveland casino started a weekly Gamblers Anonymous meeting this year in anticipation of the Horseshoe and it attracts about a half dozen people.
“If they are standing outside the door of the casino, they should know they have supportive friends,” Rev. R. Mark Giuliano, senior pastor of the Presbyterian congregation, said in an email.
The casino’s opening will also mean an increased police presence downtown. The casino security staff, casino regulators, 20 additional police officers, moonlighting officers and seven new traffic controllers, as well as hundreds of surveillance cameras inside and out, add law-enforcement eyes around the casino and Public Square, heart of the city and a major bus and rail transportation hub.
Lolita Thomas, 47, of Cleveland, who works in a coffee shop near the casino, has never been to one but is ready to try her hand. “I’ll probably do the slots. I want to make some money,” she said.
But Thomas also said she’s concerned about crime.
Alicia Dyer, 39, of Lakewood, who works in information technology in an office tower adjacent to the casino, said she’s “indifferent” to Horseshoe’s arrival and is skeptical about whether it will provide a major boost in jobs.
“I’m not convinced that they are going to improve our economy or anything like that,” she said. “People are going to come, lose their money and that money will go out of the state.”
Rock Gaming, led by Dan Gilbert, who owns basketball’s Cleveland Cavaliers, developed the casino with Caesars, which is managing day-to-day operations and whose brands include Harrah’s, Flamingo and Bally’s.