By Bertram de Souza
If the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and his high-rolling cohorts think they can pass a constitutional amendment to permit casino gambling in Ohio without the strong support of voters in the Mahoning Valley, they’re playing a losing hand.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert et al should also understand that the Valley’s backing will come at a high price: A full-service casino located in this region.
First some background: A week ago Thursday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front-page story with the headline, “A NEW CHANCE FOR GAMBLING IN CLEVELAND?” The summary subhead read, “Rival gaming groups, Cavs owner propose casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo for November for approval by voters.”
The story described the participants in the latest proposal to expand gambling in the state as “an unlikely quartet of business interests ...”
In addition to Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans Inc., the group includes principals in My Ohio Now and Penn National Gaming, which owns the Argosy Casino in Indiana.
My Ohio Now was unsuccessful last November in persuading Ohio voters to approve its plan to build a casino/hotel complex in Southwest Ohio. The main opposition came from Penn National Gaming, which spent $35 million to kill the proposal.
It now turns out that yesterday’s enemies can be today’s friends — if the price is right.
There is no doubt that having the owner of the Cavaliers (make that the “LeBron James Cavs”) as a participant gives the effort instant credibility.
And, the decision to locate casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo indicates that the proponents have figured out a way of broadening the base of support.
But, if they analyze gambling data in the state with regard to the Ohio lottery, bingo, horse racing and they check the clientele in casinos in other states, especially West Virginia and Pennsylvania, they’ll find that the Mahoning Valley has remained true to its roots.
It is not surprising that when the casino at Mountaineer Race Track established table games, the players (mostly from this area) knew more about the rules and practices than the rookie dealers. Their advice and guidance proved invaluable. After all, “craps” is one of the first words kids learned in the good old days of the Valley.
That is why a casino in this region makes much more sense than one in the tight-[expletive] city of Columbus, or the hypocritical conservative belt of southern Ohio, including Cincinnati.
And, our region is way ahead of all the other proposed sites when it comes to having a facility that’s about ready for use. The Chevrolet Centre in downtown Youngstown is struggling to make a profit. While it has offered some sold-out shows, the $45 million facility has lost one of its initial reasons for being: professional hockey.
For three years, the center was home to the Mahoning Valley SteelHounds — the team was the main, lucrative tenant — but it folded after the owner, Youngstown businessman Herb Washington, had a disagreement with the Central Hockey League. The bottom line was that Washington lost his shirt; all the promises made when he bought the franchise turned out to be empty. The biggest one, that the team would have an average attendance of at least 5,000, was an exaggeration.
Today, the facility is being propped by city government, which is on the hook for $12 million and must come up with $600,000 a year for the interest alone on the money it borrowed.
This season, the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, a junior hockey team located in the Ice Zone in Boardman, has played some of its games in the Chevy Centre. But owner Bruce Zoldan doubts the team will be back next year. That’s because the average 1,000 attendance was about 1,500 less than he had anticipated.
Bottom line: The sports/entertainment arena isn’t generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining and meet city government’s debt obligation.
A casino would make the facility an instant financial success.
Gilbert, owner of the Cavaliers, is a smart businessman. He needs to pay the Valley a visit as soon as possible — and show a willingness to make a deal with city government and other entities in the tri-county area.