In the weeks before Ohio votes on whether to allow casino gambling in four major cities, Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert is making his pro-gaming stump presentation all over Northeast Ohio. Two weeks before Election Day, he spoke in the Warehouse District, part of the downtown Cleveland area that stands to reap the benefits — or sustain damage — from Issue 3.
The proposed amendment to Ohio's constitution would green-light four full-gaming casinos, one each in Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus and Cincinnati. Gilbert's company would be in charge of Cleveland and Cincinnati. At the Warehouse meeting, longtime residents, competing businessmen, regional allies and commuters gathered at the KA Architecture Design Studio for a Q&A with Gilbert. Opinions were split.
"As a downtown resident, I'm concerned about the sleaze factor," said Beth Giuliano, an Old Stone Church Arts & Community Development representative, who voiced concerned about an increase in strip clubs and gambling addiction.
Gilbert has been quick to dismiss the threat of increased crime, but his response actually suggests, yeah, there will be more.
"Let's say [the casino creates] 8 million more visits," Gilbert told Scene in an earlier interview. "Proportionately, crime could actually go down. In surveys, they say, Well, there were 12 auto thefts before, and now there's 70, so it's up 500 [percent]. But now you have 8 million more visitors driving their car in. So percentage-wise, it actually goes down."
Another member of the audience identified himself as a downtown worker since 1977 and holder of Cavaliers season tickets. "One of the main reasons I'm voting for issue 3 is that I believe in Dan Gilbert," he said.
It's a popular sentiment. Compared to the last four failed proposals, Gilbert's looks better. He's won surprising allies and met predictable resistance. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic back the amendment, though Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams loudly opposes it. Labor unions, including the UAW and AFL-CIO, are behind the project, which proponents say could create around 5,000 temporary construction jobs in Cleveland.
In the long term, a casino could have lasting impact on downtown areas like East 4th Street, the Warehouse District and the Flats. Projections, studies and conventional wisdom suggest that a casino would either help or hurt the rest of downtown. The key is whether visitors venture outside the casino itself.
The Ohio Licensed Beverage Association and the Bowling Center Association of Ohio have publicly opposed the amendment, claiming that it will funnel money into the casino and away from other businesses. Nonprofit booster-marketing group the Cleveland Downtown Alliance has endorsed it. Some business owners hope for the best. Some expect the worst.
Even Gilbert's presentation acknow-ledged one of the louder voices in dissent: Pickwick & Frolic owner Nick Kostis, who's often informally identified as "the mayor of East 4th Street." As he told Fox 8, "We are not against development or gambling. We are simply against going out of business."
Henry "Hank" LoConti has owned the Agora for 44 years, and more recently partnered in Golic's sports bar on West 9th Street.
"Am I going to vote for the casino? Yes," LoConti told Scene. "Why? Because I don't want to lose it. Am I going to like what they're going to do? No. But I think maybe once the door's open, they'll find a way of spreading the income to more than just one entity."
It's a narrow proposition, but that's what happens when you let business legislate its own interests.
At the Warehouse District meeting, LoConti asked whether a Cleveland casino would have a 24-hour liquor license — unlike the downtown bars, which stop serving at 2 a.m. As written, the amendment wouldn't provide an exemption from local liquor laws. LoConti told Scene that if there are going to be major changes involving drinking and gambling, they should benefit more than just new casinos.
"I would rather see everybody that holds a [liquor] license in the state of Ohio participate — not in the gambling, but at least in the slots," says LoConti. "More than a casino, the state has to learn that on Friday and Saturday, your bars have got to stay open until 4, 5 in the morning. That will bring them more money than a casino will. You've got thousands and thousands of restaurants, and only four casinos.
Steve Zamborsky is the founder and general manager at Fat Fish Blue, one of the bigger bar-restaurants in the shadow of the proposed site of the Cleveland casino, which would be near the Quicken Loans Arena, by the Cuyahoga River. He's ambivalent about Issue 3, but thinks he'll vote for it.
"There's risk," acknowledges Zamborsky. "People only have so much disposable income. If people go into a casino once a month and shoot their wad, that might be money they might spend in two nights out in little places like Fat Fish Blue. [But] as a business owner who lives seven minutes out of town, I believe we've got to do something to get cranes on the horizon in Cleveland. If Gilbert is the one who can get something moving, I have to vote for it."
As Gilbert previously told Scene, "Ohioans vote with their feet every day" by going out of state to spend an estimated $1.7 billion in gambling-related money. Gilbert's group estimates Issue 3 could keep $1 billion of that in Ohio. Tino Roncone, partner at West 9th Street's Anatomy and a 10-year veteran of Cleveland nightlife, agrees.
"I think it's a good thing for Ohio," says Roncone. "I think it's a good thing for Cleveland. My family's from Youngstown. There's a bus that leaves every day from the Giant Eagle parking lot with 60 people on it. It goes to the Mountaineer Casino is West Virginia, to Erie, to Niagara. If there's a casino downtown, more people are going to come downtown. Some people will stay in a casino for six, seven hours. Most won't. They'll go to a restaurant or nightclub."
At the press conference, Gilbert was pressed for an example of the kind of synergy he's projecting between a casino and surrounding neighborhoods. Gilbert pointed to New Orleans. Later, restaurateur Zamborsky provided a more comparable example. Zamborsky says he spent time with relatives in St. Louis in the 1990s, when the riverfront area Laclede's Landing was a booming district, much like a mix of the 1990s Cleveland Flats and Columbus' historic German Village. Riverboat casino gambling was legalized in 1992.
"I was there to see it," recalls Zamborsky. "The casinos and riverboats sucked the life out of [the area]."
St. Louis restaurateurs still have varying opinions on whether the city's five casinos help or hurt land-based businesses in the long term. As with Cleveland's best guesses, there's not a clear consensus. But the St. Louis restaurant managers Scene talked to skewed positive. And 17 years later, unlike the Flats, Laclede's Landing is still busy.
"I think [business] spills over [from the casinos]," says Libby Baer, bar manager at St. Louis' Tigin Irish Pub. "If someone's going to the casino at 7 or 8, you find people aren't going to stay there until 4 or 5 in the morning. When they leave, they're going to be in a good mood or a bad mood, and they're going to be looking for a drink either way."
Gilbert has never promised that a casino would reverse the city's fortunes. "The most important thing to understand is this is not going to be a savior of Cleveland," he says. "It's going to be another brick in the wall." Gilbert sees the casino as part of package with a convention center and medical mart, which he hopes will attract more visitors — from a single-car couple to busfuls to entire conventions.
At the Warehouse District meeting, Gilbert said, "If this is not a boom to those [downtown] businesses, we have failed."