CLEVELAND - Casino gambling comes to Ohio on Monday when a $350 million Horsehoe-branded casino opens in what was once a landmark downtown department store.
Caesars Entertainment Corp., which owns 20 percent of the joint venture and will operate the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland casino under a management contract, sees the opening as a business opportunity. With some 80,000 members of Caesars' Total Rewards customer loyalty program living within a 70-mile radius of the downtown Cleveland property, establishing a rapport with customers is key .
"I think it's more about getting the Horseshoe brand pushed out in the state of Ohio and getting it identifiable," Nathan Forbes, a principal in Rock Gaming, which owns 80 percent of joint venture, said Wednesday.
Caesars and Rock Gaming officials believe the casino will attract 5 million visitors annually to downtown Cleveland.
"We're going to be here for the long term," Forbes said. "Being the first to open is symbolic, but it's about building relationships for a long period of time and creating a regional destination for gaming customers."
The Horseshoe Cleveland will be Ohio's first casino, one of four full-service casinos approved by voters in 2009. Three more will open in the state's four largest cities. The Hollywood Casino Toledo will open at the end of the month, followed by a casino in Columbus later this year. Penn National Gaming will operate both. The Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, another Caesars-Rock Gaming joint venture, is expected to open in early 2013.
On Wednesday, workers were putting finishing touches on the Horseshoe Cleveland as Rock Gaming officials gave a media a tour of the 96,000-square-foot casino in what was once the Higbee's Department Store building.
Known locally for its elaborate holiday window displays, Higbee's also had a major role in the 1983 film, "A Christmas Story." The store was re-branded as a Dillard's in 1992, and closed in 2002. Now, some 2,100 slot machines, 63 table games and a 30-table World Series of Poker-branded poker room have replaced displays for shoes, toasters and dinettes.
Historic photographs of the downtown Las Vegas Binion's Horseshoe, featuring patriarch Benny Binion, his son, Jack, and some of poker's legendary characters are prominently displayed. A modernized Horseshoe logo also adorns the Cleveland property.
Caesars, when it was known as Harrah's Entertainment, acquired Horseshoe Gaming and its casinos in Indiana, Mississippi and Louisiana from Jack Binion, paying more than $1 billion in 2003. A year later, Harrah's bought the closed downtown Binion's Horseshoe and the World Series of Poker for $50 million from owner Becky Binion Behnen. The casino was later sold but Harrah's retained the Horseshoe name and the poker tournament.
Rock Gaming and Caesars initially planned to build an all-new casino near the Quicken Loans Arena overlooking the Cuyahoga River while using the Higbee Building as a temporary facility. However, Cleveland civic leaders asked that building plans be accelerated to provided needed jobs for 2,000 construction workers. And with renovation of the historic department store hitting $350 million, the companies decided to make it the primary casino and bank the stadium-area land for future expansion.
The Higbee Building is attached to the Tower City Center, which includes an underground retail mall. The second phase will be connected to the new Horseshoe through Tower City Center.
Work on renovating four floors of the 12-story Higbee building began in February 2011. Gaming is on three levels of the facility, which includes a 400-seat buffet on the first level, and a three-restaurant food-court on level three.
Joseph Marinucci, president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, an economic development organization, said two elements of the casino plan won over the business community - the location in the heart of downtown, and minimal restaurant offerings.
"There is excitement about this project," Marinucci said Wednesday.
Forbes said the idea of a three-level casino "goes against the grain" of gaming facilities, but sight lines, accessibility and signs will make the casino user-friendly.
The Horseshoe Cleveland ownership acquired a 1,300-space parking garage near the casino where Total Rewards customers will have various privileges. Also, Total Reward customers have preferred accommodations at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, Marriott and Renaissance hotels.
Rock Gaming and Caesars hired 1,600 workers, 94 percent of who are from the Cleveland area. They'll be tested today with a controlled demonstration of systems for Ohio gaming regulators, who are also new to the game.
"The have really learned on the fly," Forbes said.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.