Flamingos After Dark

There’s a lot of sameness in Las Vegas. You see the same slot machines and “no limit” rooms, one roulette wheel looks like another, and it seems like every casino has a Gordon Ramsey “Hell’s Kitchen”-themed restaurant. (How much “hell” can one guy produce, anyway?)

With so much sameness, it’s not surprising that every casino in Vegas appears to have adopted some kind of gimmick to distinguish it from its neighbors. The Flamingo, for example, has a little outdoor area where you can find actual flamingos. You have to walk through the entire casino to get there — because casino designers consciously make you walk through the casino area to get anywhere — but you can find the real flamingos outside, going about their grooming and classy strutting without paying too much attention to the fact they they now live in an artificial habitat next to a casino where Donny and Marie Osmond perform.

I feel sorry for the flamingos.

Everyday Everywhere Gambling

  
On the C concourse of Port Columbus, at the end of a row of vending machines, sits this colorful Ohio Lottery device.  It apparently allows you to play virtually every game the Ohio Lottery offers — from the scratch-off instant games to the full lottery drawing decided by the rattling ping pong balls.  I guess there must be some bored travelers who might want to pass the time waiting at gate C52 by getting a mini gambling fix, and if so, the Ohio Lottery is happy to help them feed the beast.

Turn on a football game, and you’ll see incessant ads for Draft Kings and Fan Duel.  The little fantasy football group at the office has morphed into a big business with commercials with footage of exuberantly celebrating winners and testimonials where players talk about their winnings and the thrill of competing for cash.

And, of course, Ohio is now home to three casinos and a number of “racinos” that combine horse racing with hundreds of slot machines.  No matter where you live in the Buckeye State, you don’t have to drive far to plop yourself in front of a one-armed bandit with a cup of quarters.  And if you go to a bar after your racino visit, odds are there may be a Keno game available for your enjoyment as you sip your beer.

We live in an era where it’s easier to gamble than it ever has been before.  Does anyone think that’s a good thing?

The (Positive?) Lessons Of Gambling Saturation

In Atlantic City, New Jersey, the newest and largest casino — a $2.4 billion ultra-modern complex called Revel — is closing after operating for less than three years and never turning a profit.  Two other casinos, the Showboat and the Trump Plaza, will be closing later this year, and a fourth casino closed at the beginning of 2014. 

In Ohio, revenues from the state-licensed casinos are down at five of the six casinos that have been open for more than a year.  Casino operators, always on the lookout for that extra shekel, are hoping to win approval for plans to make up for a bit of that lost revenue by putting slot machines in smoking areas so smokers can feed the one-armed bandits while puffing away.

IMG_2931In both places, the cause for the decline in revenue is the same:  competition.  Atlantic City casinos were hurt by the opening of a number of small casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania.  In Ohio, new “racinos” — race tracks that are licensed to operate row after row of slot machines — are coming on line so that by the end of the year the state will have four casinos and seven racinos to compete for the gambling dollar.  Ohio now has gambling outlets throughout the state and in four neighboring states, and casinos can be found in cities and on native American reservations up and down the east coast.

The falling casino revenues and closures are bad news for employees who lose their jobs — Revel had more than 3,000 employees who will need to find new employment — and for government planners who adopted rosy casino tax revenues in their budgets, but it’s not necessarily bad news for the rest of the country.  The struggling fiscal performance of all of the new casinos clearly indicates that there is a finite population of gamblers in the United States, and that pie is not growing.  Perhaps the data means that most Americans would rather get and keep a job, save their hard-earned wages rather than risking them at games of chance, and achieve financial independence the old-fashioned way?  If so, such a show of prudence is encouraging.  Now, if only governmental leaders who are all too happy to adopt budgets bloated with pie-in-the-sky casino revenue projections would begin to exercise the same kind of restraint . . . .

Gambling On Gambling

Ohio regulators recently released a report about revenues earned by Ohio casinos.  Coming less than a month before the fourth and final casino, in Cincinnati, is to open, the report indicates that the casino takes may be slowing.

IMG_2928The question for now is whether the Ohio gaming market is saturated.  Ohio used to have no casinos, but it was surrounded by casinos in Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.  Now four full-blown Ohio casinos have been added to the mix, as well as “racinos” — horsetracks that have slot machines.  In the Columbus area, Scioto Downs features more than 2,000 machines and is packing in people who just want to play the slots.  Some Columbus gamblers apparently think the slots are “looser” at Scioto Downs than at the Hollywood Casino, and they’d rather play where they have a better chance of getting a jackpot.

Ohio regulators seemingly recognize that the market for gambling isn’t as robust as was forecast when Ohio voters first approved casinos.  The Ohio Department of Taxation originally estimated $1.9 billion in annual tax revenues from the casinos, but this year’s state budget anticipates less than $1 billion in tax revenues from the casinos.  With new casinos coming on line, racinos providing competition, and casinos in surrounding states trying to hold on to their Ohio clientele, who knows whether that number is realistic or just another gamble?

I’ve always questioned the credibility of casino revenue and job forecasts, because I believe there are only a limited number of people who are interested in gambling.  People who don’t want to gamble aren’t going to start just because a casino opens nearby, and people who do like to gamble can only go to so many places on so many occasions.  If the Ohio gambling market isn’t growing, then all of the casinos, racinos and other competitors are just going to be tussling over the size of their pieces of an unchanging pie.

At The Hollywood Casino In Columbus

IMG_2925On Sunday, Russell, UJ, and I visited the Hollywood Casino, one of four casinos built in Ohio after the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2009.  It’s far out on Columbus’ west side, off Broad Street, near the intersection of I-70 and I-270.  We wanted to check out the place and watch one of the NFL playoff games.

My expectations were low; I’m not sure why.  I envisioned a dim interior packed with slot machines and grim-faced people, but instead we found a vast, brightly lit space that risks putting patrons into sensory overload.  Every slot machine, of course, has neon lights and colorful themes (how much do the artists who design the pirates, genies, and other characters on slot machines get paid, anyway?)  but the decor itself was interesting, with attractive light fixtures far overhead, tall round pillars with changing video presentations, enormous TV screens everywhere you look, and huge movie billboards covering the walls.

IMG_2930We landed in o.h., one of four restaurants inside the casino, to eat and watch the first half of the 49ers-Falcons game. (o.h. is an apt name, because every true Buckeye will be tempted to add “i.o.” — and after a few hours gambling, they may be right.)  It’s a great place to watch a game.  There are dozens of large flat screen TVs circling the dining area tuned to every imaginable sporting event, including professional bowling.  The bar next door features a much more immense main screen and would be a fine venue for a beer or two and some serious football viewing.

We tried the philly steak egg rolls and twisted nachos made over crinkle-cut potatoes, followed by a pepperoni pizza.  All were tasty and served hot by very friendly wait staff.  More surprising to me was that the prices were reasonable and in line with what you would expect to pay at a regular bar or restaurant.

After we ate our food and watched the first half of the game, Jim and Russell tried their hands at games of chance.  I’m too cheap to be a gambler, so I strolled around taking in the table games areas, the high roller enclave, and the other parts of the casino.  The place was crowded, and people seemed to be having a good time on a cold and windy Sunday afternoon.  The casino is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We’ll see how it looks after a year or two of wear and tear, but for now it looks like the Hollywood casino is off to a profitable start.

How Are Those Ohio Casinos Doing?

Earlier this month, the Hollywood Casino opened on the outskirts of Columbus.  About 25,000 gamblers showed up for the opening day festivities.

In 2009, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the construction of four casinos — one each in Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, and Cincinnati.  When the constitutional amendment was considered in 2009, state officials estimated that the 33 percent tax on gross casino revenues from the four casinos, plus approved video lottery terminals, would produce $470 million annually in tax revenue.  The promise of that kind of tax contribution, plus the jobs the casinos would create, caused Ohio voters to end their long-standing opposition to casino gambling in the state.

The Columbus casino is the third to open, following casinos in Cleveland and Toledo.  It’s early yet, but the trend lines in Cleveland and Toledo aren’t knocking anyone’s socks off.  For both of those casinos, June was the first full month of operation — and also was the high point for revenue, which has declined every month since June.  In Cleveland, revenue has declined from $26.1 million in June to $21.1 million in September; in Toledo, revenue has dropped from $20.4 million in June to $15.9 million in September.  The casino operators and experts say that the novelty of a new casino wears off and it takes a while for standard gambling patterns to get settled, and that the Ohio casinos might not follow the patterns seen in other locations.  The casinos also are tweaking their operations as they learn their markets; in Cleveland, for example, the Horseshoe Casino is now formally welcoming bus tours and providing some slots credits to entice bus visitors.

A few months won’t tell the tale, of course, but you have to wonder if we’ve reached the casino saturation point in this country, and there just isn’t that large of a market for more casino gambling.

Rolling The Dice On Cleveland’s Casino

On Monday Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino opens.  It will be the first to open of the four casinos Ohio voters authorized when they passed a constitutional amendment several years ago.

The casino, which is located in the heart of downtown, right on Public Square, next to Cleveland’s landmark Terminal Tower, has been the focus of significant hope and concern.  The hope is that the casino will kick start the struggling downtown economy by bringing jobs, foot traffic, and tourist dollars to local restaurants and businesses.   In some ways the casino has already delivered on some of the hope; it is housed in a vacant space formerly occupied by a closed department store that had to be refurbished, and it has hired workers to deal cards, serve drinks, and do the other things that casino workers do.

The concern is that the Public Square location might not show Cleveland off to the greatest advantage.  It is an extensive open area that is frequented by vagrants and panhandlers; it’s also the place where RTA riders board buses and vice versa.  Clevelanders fear that casino visitors who see homeless people in the surrounding area might not venture out to explore the rest of downtown Cleveland — and the hoped-for broader economic impact won’t materialize as a result.  In an effort to spiff up the area, Cleveland police have increased their patrols and worked to roust vagrants from the area.

The big question with casinos as an engine of economic activity is whether visitors will leave the casino grounds and check out the rest of the area.  If casino patrons don’t feel secure enough to do so, they’ll just stay in the casino, punching buttons on their slot machine of choice and eating and drinking the casino’s fare.  The challenge for Cleveland is to do what it can to prevent that from happening.

Looking For A Job, Any Job, In Cleveland

Times are tough in Cleveland.  How tough?  Today a story gave us some sense of the distress felt by many people.

The times in Cleveland are so challenging that, when the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland announced that it was accepting applications for table game and poker dealer jobs that pay between $17 and $22 per hour, 11,800 people applied for 500 openings.  Some applicants even took special coaching classes at a nearby community college to try to improve their interviewing skills and show the dazzling personality that casinos apparently are looking for in table game dealers.

In 2009, when Ohio voters approved the constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling in our state, it was sold as a way to create jobs — and at least that promise is being kept.  Two years later, the economy still stinks, and former construction workers, machinists, and medical billing technicians who have been out of work for months are so desperate that they have flooded a not-yet-open casino with applications and even taken classes in hopes of improving their slim chances of landing a job dealing blackjack.  In my view, that painful reality says a lot more about the true extent of our economic problems than cold statistics ever could.

 

The Casino Deal

After a stalemate that lasted for months, Penn National Gaming, the City of Columbus, and Franklin County have tentatively agreed to a deal that will end their squabble and allow construction of a west side casino to proceed.

Under the deal, Columbus will kick in $15 million in environmental clean-up and road improvement costs and Penn National will agree to have the casino site annexed into Columbus, which will then benefit from tax revenues and “host city” revenues generated by the casino.  Both parties will pay $2.5 million toward development projects in the west side, and an as-yet-unidentified party is supposed to kick in $11 million to buy the Arena District site where Penn National originally was going to build the casino.  The deadline for getting all of the pieces of the deal inked is June 10, and if that deadline is met Penn National thinks the casino can be completed and open in 2012.

I voted against the constitutional amendment authorizing casinos in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio because I don’t think Columbus needs a casino.  My side lost, and it became inevitable that a casino would be built.  Since the vote, and the later decision to move the casino to a location in the city’s depressed west side, workers in the construction industry and west side businesses and residents have been looking forward to the jobs that casino construction and operations will provide.  For their sake, I’m glad that a deal has been struck.

Casino Dreams

There has been a lot of news coverage in Columbus lately about the location of the casino that will be built as a result of the passage of the constitutional amendment, Ohio Issue 3, in November.  The casino developer, Penn National Gaming, has finalized its purchase of the property that the Ohio Constitution, thanks to Issue 3, now specifies as the only location for a casino in Columbus.  That location is in the Arena District, an up-and-coming area of businesses, offices, condos, apartments, restaurants, bars, Nationwide Arena (home of the Columbus Blue Jackets), and Huntington Park (home of the AAA Columbus Clippers).  Local leaders don’t want a casino plopped into that vibrant, growing area of town and are trying to get Penn National to locate the casino somewhere else.  Other parts of Columbus, moreover, are eager to welcome a casino and the jobs that supposedly will accompany the casino’s construction and operation.  So far, I have heard reports about The Continent area, which is located north of downtown along I-71, Cooper Stadium, Scioto Downs, and Westland Mall as proposed alternative sites for a casino.

It is sad that there are parts of Columbus that are so desperate for jobs that they would welcome a casino.  I think they are dreaming, however, if they think Penn National is going to change the location without a knock-down, drag-out fight.  After all, the constitutional amendment was written specifically to require the casino to be built in the Arena District location, no doubt precisely because the Arena District is an exciting, busy place with an active night-life and lots of foot traffic.  And, so far as I can determine, Penn National would need to go through the cumbersome legislative and electoral process of undoing the constitutional amendment in order to build the casino at some other location.  Even if the other sites were as attractive as the Arena District site — and they clearly aren’t — why would Penn National want to spend the money to make such a change?

I strongly opposed Issue 3, and I will hate to see a casino built in Columbus.  However, unless civic leaders are willing to play hard ball with municipal services, precipitating a constitutional showdown that pits Columbus’ home rule powers against the constitutional provisions implemented by Issue 3, I think Columbus is just going to have to grit its teeth and accept a casino in the Arena District.

Stalwart Opposition

Although Ohio Issue 3, which amended the Ohio Constitution to allow for the building of casinos in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo, was approved by voters statewide, it was strongly rejected by voters in central Ohio.  Now, local politicians are trying to figure out what they can do to try to prevent the casino from being located in the Columbus Arena District, a new, upscale, family-friendly area located just north of downtown.  Today’s Columbus Dispatch has an editorial applauding those efforts.

It will be interesting to see what local leaders do to try to avoid the construction of a casino in the location that the Constitution now identifies as the sole, lawful location for a casino in Columbus.  Withhold water and sewer services?  Decline to improve roads and infrastructure?  Tell the police not to patrol in the vicinity of the casino?  Develop new taxing and fee-based ordinances to make operating the casino much less lucrative?  Such initiatives, if pursued, seem likely to set up an interesting legal battle between the “home rule” powers of municipalities like Columbus and the effect of an unprecedented state constitutional amendment.

From Craftsmen To Casino Workers

Obviously, I am disappointed in the fact that Ohio voters approved Issue 3, which will result in the construction of full-scale casinos in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo.  What is really sad about the passage of Issue 3, however, is what it says more generally about The Buckeye State in particular and The American Dream in general.

There is no doubt that that principal reason that Ohio voters backed Issue 3 — after having repeatedly rejected statewide casino gambling initiatives in the very recent past — is that it promised to create 34,000 jobs.  What does it say about our state that the promise of a few thousand jobs as casino workers is enough to cause voters to reverse their longstanding opposition to gambling and welcome casinos to some of our major cities?  I think it clearly speaks of reduced expectations, reduced hopes, and reduced dreams.

Ohio used to be a state that was chock full of good jobs for all.  In the Akron area where I grew up, thousands of citizens were successful blue collar workers in the rubber and auto industries.  They had union jobs that allowed them to buy nice homes, take nice vacations, grill out on weekends, and support the Browns and Indians.  They lived on the same streets as carpenters, shoe repairmen, dentists, lawyers, and car dealers.  Those American workers made tires, furniture, televisions, textile products, glass, and other actual tangible objects that were bought and sold.  They were proud of their jobs, proud of their state, and proud of their country.  All of them hoped and expected that their children would have even better jobs and better lives.

Most of the manufacturing jobs that I remember from my youth have long since left our state.  We can argue about why they are gone — whether it was overly greedy management or overly greedy unions, poor business planning or poor business practices, workers compensation awards that were too generous or tax schemes that were too aggressive, environmental regulation, or general business costs that simply were too high to compete with what businesses will pay in Mexico or China — but there is no dispute that they are gone.  And, as a result, we have in Ohio a population of people who are desperate for a job, any job — even if it is a job wearing a bow tie and a fake smile as you deal cards  to surly, drunken gamblers at a blackjack table at 2 a.m.

Does anyone believe that these desperate people dream The American Dream anymore?  That is what I find so deeply saddening about the passage of Issue 3.  Even sadder, I doubt that the Ohioans who sacrificed their principles and swallowed their misgivings and succumbed to the siren’s song of casino gambling are very much different from millions of desperate Americans in every other state in the union.

Get Out And Vote!

Election Day has come again. I’ll be stopping at my polling place on my way to work. It is in a church on Route 62, and there I will exercise my franchise with respect to a number of local races and statewide ballot issues.

In encourage everyone to get out and vote. It always makes me feel good – and this year I will feel especially good voting against Issue 3. We don’t need or want casino gambling in Ohio! We don’t need to join Indiana and Michigan and West Virginia in a race to the bottom, and we shouldn’t muck up the Ohio Constitution with what is, in reality, special interest legislation unworthy of being memorialized in our state’s most fundamental governing document.

More No On Issue 3

I’m happy to see that some Columbus community development organizations have come out against Issue 3.  Although organizations in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo have endorsed the proposal, Columbus groups have criticized Issue 3 — correctly, I think — as an obvious effort to line the pockets of special interests and to preclude state or local regulation of casinos by establishing them through a constitutional amendment.  I hope Columbus voters are paying attention.

Constitutions And Casinos

I’ve previously noted my opposition to Issue 3, which would amend the Ohio Constitution to allow casinos to be built in four Ohio cities. One reason for my opposition is that I think the Ohio Constitution should be a constitution, not a statute or a detailed laundry list.  In my view, constitutions should establish broad approaches, goals, aspirations, and prohibitions, and leave the minutiae to be filled in by future legislatures and executives.  The federal Constitution is a good example.  Constitutional provisions like the Supremacy Clause and the Commerce Clause leave lots of room for interpretation.  A good constitution provides a framework that describes how the process of government should work, yet is flexible enough to deal with changing technologies and concepts.  It is the difference between a document that says that the legislature has the power to levy taxes and one that says that all horses used for commercial purposes will be taxed at one ha’penny per biennium.  The former approach has helped to guide more than 200 years of constitutional democracy; the latter would need to be amended repeatedly. 

If you read the text of Issue 3 — and it is available, in PDF format, on the website of the Ohio Ballot Board under the heading Issue 3 — you will see that it is inconsistent with the foregoing notion of what a constitution should be.  Indeed, Issue 3 is extraordinarily detailed.  It is more than five pages long.  It specifies which taxes can be levied on the casinos, at what percentage, and how the funds generated by those taxes will be distributed.  It states the license fee to be charged and how the proceeds of the license fee are to be used.  It specifies that one (and one) casino may be created in each of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Toledo, and it even specifies the particular properties, identified by their individual tax parcel numbers, on which the four casinos may be developed.

In my view, therefore, Issue 3 is not a constitutional amendment.  A real constitutional amendment on the topic might state, for example, that casino gambling is legal in Ohio and is subject to regulation and taxation by the General Assembly, with the proceeds of such taxes and regulations being distributed as directed by the General Assembly.  Issue 3, in contrast, is legislation that is being offered as a constitutional amendment only because, if it is incorporated into the Ohio Constitution, it could not be overridden by the Ohio General Assembly and could only be modified by another constitutional amendment.

I don’t think casino gambling is a good idea as a matter of social policy, but I also am opposed to junking up the Ohio Constitution with a bunch of detailed regulatory language that could soon be outdated and anachronistic.  I’m against Issue 3 for that reason as well.