Ohio's 1st casino shaping up; next comes slots

THOMAS J. SHEERAN Associated Press Published:

CLEVELAND (AP) -- A former Cleveland department store that once had a starring Hollywood role showed off some new glitz Tuesday as backers of Ohio's first casino promised the restored art deco surroundings would be ready for a grand opening before Memorial Day weekend.

Principal Jeff Cohen with Rock Gaming LLC, a partner with Caesars Entertainment Inc. in the $350 million joint venture casino development, said the Horseshoe Cleveland casino will be ready for opening day during the week of May 14.

"When you've got 600 (construction) people a day in here, it's truly amazing how this place progresses each and every day," Cohen said during a media tour. "Every day you come in here there's just a total transformation from one day to the next."

As he talked, crews worked above escalators that will take bettors to a basement buffet that will seat 400. The street-level gambling floor was lined with knee-high bases awaiting slot machines.

Dealers-in-training are getting excited about being part of history, said Marcus Glover, general manager of the casino.

"They couldn't be more excited. If it were up to them, they'd be in this place right now and so they are eager to get down here, and they are eager to be part of what this historical development will be and what it will mean to the city of Cleveland," Glover said.

Glover said the casino will tap into high-end outside restaurants rather than compete with them. He wouldn't offer specifics when asked about "comps," or freebies offered to loyal customers, but said that would be part of the casino's business plan.

"All of our fine dining will be done with partners around the local community," he said, adding that a deliberate decision was made not to open a high-priced steakhouse in the casino in favor of partnering with outside restaurants.

"We felt there was ample quality supply (of fine dining) in the market and we did not want to cannibalize that existing supply," he said.

The casino will open up in the former Higbee department store in the heart of the city. It will employ 1,600 people.

Penn National Gaming plans to open a casino in Toledo two weeks later, and also plans to have another casino in Columbus. Rock Ohio Caesars also is to open a casino in Cincinnati.

Ohio voters approved plans for all four casinos. Led by church groups, opponents fought the vote, saying that gambling hits the poor the hardest.

The Higbee building and its holiday-decorated windows had a starring role in the 1983 film "A Christmas Story." A second casino phase with a new building to be constructed nearby will begin later.

The street level of the first phase will have 700 slot machines, 30 table games and a bar in the middle of the action.

The second floor of the Higbee building will have 1,400 slots, 34 table games and a food court with three outlets, including a specialty burger restaurant and a deli. The top floor will have a VIP lounge and specialty gaming tables.

"We are ready to take delivery of slots," Cohen said, and that will begin under tight security next week.

The original plan called for opening the casino next month, but that was delayed by the pace of background checks on casino employees.

"We essentially were ready to open up March 26 so this extra time that we've got is really a bonus," Cohen said. "It's given us the ability to fine tune, tweak things, get kitchen equipment burned in, get our employees trained and ready for opening."

Cohen said a casino parking deck, which suffered a partial collapse in December without injuries, would be ready for the casino opening. Safety has gotten special attention since the collapse, he said.