CLEVELAND -- Visitors to Ohio's first casino won't see glitzy Las Vegas-style stage shows but instead will get an invitation to gamble and then sample the attractions in blue-collar Cleveland.
The Horseshoe Casino Cleveland will open in late March on four floors of a renovated department store overlooking Public Square in the heart of downtown.
The casino will have 2,011 slot machines, 63 table games and a 30-table poker room.
Instead of offering in-house live entertainment, the casino will bet on drawing visitors who are also interested in other Cleveland attractions including its sports teams, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and its busy theater scene.
"Rather than saying, `Come to Horseshoe Cleveland' and just come into the casino and stay the entire time, we're actually connecting to the city," the casino's manager, Marcus Glover, said during a year-end construction tour interview.
"We'll provide first-class amenities in terms of leveraging the amenities around us in the downtown corridor with the fine restaurants and hotels that are down here, as well as the venues and other attractions."
The city likes the idea of an estimated 5 million annual casino visitors strolling through downtown to shop, eat and sample the attractions.
"It's important for the casino not to be just an enclosed shrine to betting," said Chris Warren, Cleveland's chief of regional development. With walkways and pedestrian tunnels linking the casino to the sports complex and Tower City retail-office complex, "you have a unique constellation of really high-visitor, high-marquee venues that will be connected," he said.
Plans for the initial casino phase call for a buffet restaurant and a food court with three outlets.
The casino eventually will expand to include a newly built casino overlooking smokestack industries along the serpentine Cuyahoga River.
By comparison, Caesars Palace Las Vegas has 14 places to eat, plus shops, a spa and high-end entertainment including Celine Dion during the New Year's weekend.
The Cleveland casino and one planned for Cincinnati will be operated by a joint venture between Caesars Entertainment and Rock Gaming, run by Dan Gilbert, owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Quicken Loans.
Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cavaliers, is within sight of the casino and the Ritz-Carlton hotel, which the casino recently purchased, adding to Gilbert's expanding footprint in Cleveland.
The initial casino phase may have a familiar look for movie buffs. It will be in the old Higbee building, which played a starring role in the 1983 film "A Christmas Story." Planners have tried to preserve its retro look, right down to the original doors.
Two years ago, Ohio voters approved plans for four casinos, including locations in Columbus and Toledo to be run by Penn National Gaming. Casino opponents, led by church groups, fought the vote and warned that gambling hits the pocketbooks of the poor the hardest.
Cleveland, with a poverty rate of 34 percent, ranks as the nation's third-poorest big city. Les Bernal, executive director of the Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation in Washington, D.C., predicts a litany of gambling-related problems will result in Ohio from casinos.
"Ohio is about to unleash one of the biggest public policy failures in America over the last 40 years," he said. "It's going to increase the level of personal debt, it's going to create tens of thousands of new gambling addicts, it's going to develop an economy based on phony prosperity and it's going to ultimately result in higher taxes and worse budget deficits for the people of Ohio."
Brian Davis, a community organizer with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, said it's an open question whether any economic benefit from a casino would outweigh additional demands on social services because of gambling addicts, debt-ridden gamblers and other issues.
In either case, a casino will simply add an additional outlet to the betting opportunities already available, he said.
"People who are struggling with gambling addiction find ways even if they live in Cleveland right now," in the pre-casino era, he said.
A key selling point in the casino campaign was creating jobs. Cleveland's casino will have about 1,600 employees and initial job postings in recent weeks have drawn tens of thousands of applicants.
The $350 million project is expected to create 2,000 construction jobs. Cleveland's jobless rate was 9.1 percent in November, with nearly 17,000 people looking for work. The casino also raised hopes of spinoff jobs, from initial construction work to expanded restaurant and tourism employment.
Brandt Evans, whose Pura Vida restaurant sits a half-block from Horseshoe Cleveland, said he is confident the casino will thrive under Gilbert's hard-driving leadership.
"If my projected sales increase, I'll definitely have to hire at least 10 to 15 more employees," said Evans, whose restaurant opened seven months ago and employs 23.
John Krajewski, 50, a sheet-metal worker, is an early job success story. He landed work installing heating and ventilation equipment at the casino after being laid off 20 months and now expects to patronize the casino when it opens.
"I see Cleveland starting to grow again - the `Comeback City' that it was in the '80s," he said during a lunch break with fellow hard-hats. The job has given him a chance to resume planning for his retirement.
"My (investment) funds are starting to kick back to what they were and I'm making a decent living like I was before," he said.
Krajewski may reflect the blue-collar base of the casino. He and his wife occasionally travel to a casino in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but expect to give the Cleveland casino a chance.
"I'm not really that big of a gambler, but I would come down to monkey around on the slot machines," he said. Glover said he isn't concerned about the casino's odds of flourishing in an increasingly crowded Midwestern gambling scene.
"Ohio will have four casinos. Today Ohio has no casinos. Everyone who lives in Ohio who wants to partake in gaming activities leaves the state today," he said.
"So, there's considerable amount of support leaving Ohio today to go participate in gaming activities in bordering states, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan. So we feel pretty good about having the prospect of only having one casino here in Cleveland."
But Glover already has his antennae out for the possibility of seeing further dilution of the gambling pie if Ohio horse race tracks offer slots-like video lottery terminals.
"Tracks, if they do eventually get the VLTs, pose some level of cannibalization," he said. "But we'll have a different offering than those tracks will have."
Glover promised the casino would have an opulent look - "very rich textures, very rich color palate, very masculine color palate" - and said he's confident City Hall would keep the area neat and safe.
Asked about the potential for panhandlers and vagrants outside the casino's front door, Glover said he wasn't deterred.
"We feel good about what the city of Cleveland is going to do in terms of devoting police force and other services to make this area a much more vibrant area," he said.
The Associated Press