The lights of Canada flicker across the icy falls, but here, on the American side, empty walkways meander past empty storefronts. The sidewalks in downtown's "entertainment district" -- a smattering of bars that makes the Flats look like South Beach -- are barren. Picture Youngstown with wedding chapels and some mist, and you're here: Niagara Falls, New York.
Rising out of the desperation is Seneca Niagara, 26 floors of cobalt-glass hope. It's a typhoon of lights and bells and live funk, of crab legs and collard greens and Hunan beef all for 14.99! It's Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right, nut straights and split aces and sonofabitch dealers flipping impossible fours. And it's a whole lot of sweet booze, available for the low, low price of a tip to the nice lady in the low-cut top.
This -- all this and only this -- is why 30 Clevelanders are about to stumble off a bus into the New York cold. The guys who fixed your building's elevator; the lady who sold you that home alarm; the flight attendant who grabbed that pillow for you: They're all here, they're all shit-bombed, and they're all ready to spend some cash.
They'll spend it everywhere: Denny's, the hotel gift shop, the corner bar, the karaoke bar, even the friendly neighborhood strip club. But they could get all that in Cleveland without dropping $110 on a ride and a bed, climbing on a bus at 9 a.m., and sleeping in a dingy Quality Inn.
No, they're here for the one thing you can't spend your money on in Ohio: They're here to gamble.
"Let's go win some money," says Cliff, the group's chaperon, before his charges disembark on a recent Saturday afternoon. The owner of the Union Club, a corner bar on the eastern outskirts of downtown, Cliff is the coach, confidant, and caretaker of this crowd of loyal misfits, most of them regulars. His shoulders slump over his slender frame, and his pate is bare and splotchy, tinged from too many afternoons on the Vegas strip. He looks perpetually tired, too tired to shuttle a bunch of drunks to and from New York.
But he does so four times a year. Cliff is among the legion of bar owners, church fund-raisers, senior-center organizers, veterans' group leaders, and others who understand what the suits in Columbus don't: People gamble. Whether it's legal or not, whether the state's getting a cut or not, people -- boot-wearing working guys, blue-haired retirees, college coeds, and a whole lot of others -- like to spend their extra cash on hope. Hope that they'll hit it big or at least win enough to give the casino a big F You! over a bloody prime rib and a double Bloody Mary.
Cliff uses Lakefront Lines, a Cleveland bus company that on any given day has 5 to 10 buses headed to out-of-state casinos, says owner Mike Goebel. And casino parking lots around the Rust Belt are filled with Ohio license plates.
Seneca Niagara alone gets 720,000 Ohioans a year, according to its estimates. The gambling industry calculates that Ohioans took five million gambling trips in 2003, most of them to Indiana, Detroit, and Canada.
As a result, Ohioans are kicking millions of dollars in taxes to other cities and states each year. Detroit nets $150 million in taxes from its casinos. In Indiana, the Argosy Casino pays tens of millions to local governments alone, on top of the hundreds of millions that go to the state.
In Ohio, gambling supporters -- Indian casinos, racetrack owners, big developers, and others -- say casinos would flood the state's economy with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. They're pushing for a November vote to approve slots and possibly full-blown casinos in the state's racetracks and big cities.
The Cuyahoga County commissioners want two Vegas-style casinos in downtown Cleveland. By letting hundreds of millions flow out of Ohio, "We're educating the kids in Indiana and we're helping other states," says Commissioner Tim Hagan.
But Ohio voters have rejected casinos twice before. And the state's top leaders don't seem to care that all that cash is leaving the state. Our cities will turn into crime-ridden hellholes, they say, and our residents will become problem gamblers and spiral into bankruptcy.
You can't discount a small negative impact, Hagan says. But "that's true about everything -- booze and everything else," he says. "You can't make public policy based on [that]."
There's no indication that casinos have brought great new ills to cities like Detroit. And by the looks of things in Niagara Falls, the folks busing in from out of state are not deadbeats-in-waiting. Most are ambivalent about casinos in Ohio. For them, gambling's just another way to spend some cash and make some memories.
"Winning's always nice," says Kathy Harbron, a flight attendant from West Park, "but I just go for the bus trip."
No, casinos won't make addicts out of them, because in all likelihood, Ohio's problem gamblers already are problem gamblers. They're just giving their money to New York or some internet company in Antigua.
In fact, by Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after they arrived, most of Cliff's troops are gathered in the casino lobby, anxiously waiting for the bus. Nearly everyone "broke even," a gambler's way of saying that he could have lost a lot more. Their budgets are blown.
"We had fun," Kathy's mom, Connie, says after boarding the bus. "Broke, but we had fun."
The bus barrels south, and its lights illumine Pennsylvania, then Ohio. It's almost 8 p.m. when it pulls up to the Union Club. There's work in the morning, and they won't call the Mega Millionaire numbers for a couple days. Retirement will have to wait for the next trip out of town.
"Back to reality," says Cliff as the bus parks. "Bar's open. Only problem is, you've gotta have cash."
And with that, most everyone goes home. Cash? They left that in New York.