CLEVELAND — It was 10 years ago this weekend, May 14, 2012, that crowds lined up outside the Higbee Building to be the first in Ohio to legally gamble in the new Horseshoe Casino Cleveland. The partnership between Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert and Caesars came about after Ohio voters approved gambling at four casinos in the state. Gilbert's vision was to spark growth downtown he said at the time by breaking the traditional casino mold of keeping customers inside with restaurants and entertainment but encouraging them to go out and explore Cleveland.
"We're promoting two-way traffic, not just traffic into the casino but pushing traffic out into the great venues that are around downtown,” said Gilbert at the 2012 festivities on Public Square.
That started with the $350 million conversion of the mostly vacant Higbee Building into what was initially referred to as the Phase I casino with a Phase II planned for along the Cuyahoga River. But a 2011 fight with the Kasich administration over taxes and fees that forced construction on the casino to stop in 2011 led to an agreement between the casinos and the state. That agreement is what cleared the way for slots at the state's seven racetracks and that in turn changed the whole gambling landscape in the state.
“I mean people say hey what happened to the Phase II casino? I mean that's what happened to it right,” said Matt Cullen Chairman of JACK Entertainment. Cullen has been the common thread in this project starting with Dan Gilbert in 2009 and when Gilbert sold his interests a few years back, Cullen and his partners at JACK Entertainment took over the management of the downtown casino and Thistledown.
“Lots of rocks in the road, lots of confusion,” he said reflecting on the last decade. “We didn't know that the racinos were coming at the time, we didn't know that our gaming partner Caesars was going to go bankrupt. We learned a lot over the course of the 10 years.”
Looking back the last decade, JACK Casino has generated close to $2.2 billion in revenue and more than $700 million in taxes, with Cleveland seeing at least $36 million through their 5% local share. Cullen says the major number, though, in his view is the 31 million visitors it has drawn not just to the casino but to downtown Cleveland.
"Our whole philosophy was sort of an inside-out casino to your point right? Use the casino but use the restaurants around it and use the amenities around it and encourage people to go out and so that's been the case from the beginning for us and that hasn't changed."
Evident by the new outdoor patio area that the JACK is adding off Public Square. Looking down the road at the next 10 years, Cullen said he's excited about the dimension sports betting will bring to the casino.
“Most of the business will be online, most of the fun will be in the properties and around the properties and so it will really add just another thing to do when you're downtown. 'Hey let's drop in over there and watch a game and walk across and have dinner and come back and check in on stuff.’ So I think that's something, we just opened a brand new poker room. People really love to play poker and it's not even a moneymaker from a casino standpoint but it adds to the vibrancy of what's going on makes people want to come down there.”
He’s also excited by the constant development downtown with projects in the pipeline like the Sherwin-Williams project to go along with Gilbert's Bedrock, which recently completed the May building renovation.
“And now Bedrock's talking about a very significant development on that same riverfront property that we had talked about,” he said of the Phase II site that Gilbert’s companies maintained ownership of in the sale.
"I think a lot of the momentum that we had hoped for is coming to pass," he said.