Making the News

Crains's Cleveland Business

Originally Published:Monday, April 3, 2006

Big Gamble
Slot machine plan faces longer odds as some casino backers fold their support

By Jay Miller
Crains's Cleveland Business

It's a good bet the plan now being pushed to allow slot machines only at select locations statewide won't win support at the ballot box in November from some who, until now, have backed the idea of legalizing casino gambling in Ohio.

You can put Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin in that camp, as well as the folks who came down to the Flats last summer to play Texas Hold'em poker. And you can toss into that category anyone in Cleveland who supports gambling only because they see it as a downtown tourist draw.

The current plan is drawing critics who maintain the lack of casino table games, such as roulette, craps and poker, is a serious mistake.

"You probably need full-fledged casino gambling," said Mayor Foltin, whose city long has sought to open Ohio's door to casino gambling. "We need to develop this to bring in tourists. This just doesn't do it."

Last month, race track owners and would-be casino developers announced they would be gathering petition signatures to put on the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit slot machines at the state's seven race tracks and at three freestanding casinos - two in Cleveland and one in Cincinnati.

After four years, residents of the five counties with the slot machines would be able to vote on whether table games can be added at those locations.

As the ballot issue is structured, the lion's share of the tax money coming to the state from the slot machines would go to college scholarships, and another large chunk would be spread among Ohio's 88 counties for economic development.

By putting slots at race tracks, the ballot issue's supporters are trying to bring on board a well-financed group of track owners with turf to protect. Targeting education also tries to temper opposition among nongamblers and those who have opposed past gambling initiatives in the state.

David Hopcraft, spokesman for the Learn and Earn Committee, which is gathering the petition signatures, said the issue was crafted as it was because "the vast majority of Ohioans will accept slots, but they are opposed to table games and casinos."

However, the backers have left themselves open to criticism that they're leaving a lot of money on the table by reducing the state's ability to attract out-of-state gamblers who like to play a variety of casino games. In addition, the ability of Cleveland's two casinos to attract even suburbanites would be compromised by two slots casinos at the Northfield and Thistledown race tracks in the eastern suburbs.

While Mayor Foltin is upset that his city wouldn't get a casino under the current plan, he and others maintain that slots-only casinos are yesterday's answer to legalized gambling and are no boost to tourism. He said they don't make sense when the competition - casinos in Detroit, Canada, Indiana and New York state - have table games.

Michael Pollock, who publishes Michael Pollock's Gaming Industry Observer in Northfield, N.J., agrees with Mayor Foltin that the proposed ballot issue in Ohio leaves something to be desired.

"You need to bring people from other areas into the neighborhood" of a casino, Mr. Pollock said. "You need to do that with more than slots. Otherwise, you're just dealing with the local people."

Mark Rosentraub, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, who has been involved in research on the gaming issue, supports the plan on the table. He concedes the proposed ballot issue won't attract large numbers of people from out of state to gamble in Ohio, but he argues it at least would keep some gambling spending in the state.

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