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Published: Thursday, 3/29/2012

Place your bets

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Las Vegas on the Maumee River is set to open in about two months. Will it be the pot of gold at the end of Toledo's rainbow? Maybe not.

Thousands of occasional and serious gamblers will flock to Hollywood Casino Toledo when it opens around the end of May. They will test their luck against 2,002 slot machines and 80 craps, roulette, poker, and other gaming tables.

For a few days or weeks, it will look like it's raining money at the casino. Eventually, however, business will settle into a familiar pattern: slower during weekdays, busier at night, and busiest on the weekends.

The casino's most faithful patrons are expected to be senior citizens, especially older women, who will spend money on slot machines hour after hour. Some casinos award customers points based on how much they play, like the rewards on a credit card. Others have experimented with portable gaming devices, so players can gamble in casino restaurants and bathrooms.

Most visitors won't wander outside the casino, which is miles from downtown Toledo. According to National Review magazine, California studied the economic impact of casinos in Atlantic City and concluded that they "largely failed in achieving the objectives of job growth for local residents and city-wide economic development."

Gambling addiction is likely to rise. According to the magazine, a government study found that problem and pathological gambling occurs at double the national average within 50 miles of a casino. This week, the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services held two sessions here to train social-service providers, law enforcement officers, and other to recognize gambling addicts.

Slot machines will tease players with near misses on big jackpots. Sometimes they will pay off. But slots are computers programmed to return about 90 cents of each dollar bet, so if you play long enough, you lose -- guaranteed.

Scott Butera, chief executive of Foxwoods Resort Casinos in Massachusetts, told the New York Times Magazine: "The math is the math. Over time, we'll make our [cut of the action]."

Meanwhile, Toledo's Raceway Park is a walking corpse. Penn National Gaming, which owns the horse track as well as the new casinos in Toledo and Columbus, bought the right to move the track to Dayton from the state for $75 million. The deal has to be approved by the state racing commission, but that's a safe bet.

Toledo City Council member Lindsey Webb and state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) say Toledo deserves more than the $3.5 million the city would get under the deal. They want enough to spruce up the soon-to-be-deserted horse track for potential buyers, and maybe a little to complete the construction of the I-75/I-475 junction. They could responsibly demand all of the money Penn National will pay to abandon its promise to keep the racetrack in Toledo.

Slot machines in Toledo will compete with some 12,000 slots in casinos within an hour's drive of here. That number may rise, as Michigan talks about adding as many as 22 casinos -- and thousands more slot machines -- across the state.

And Ohio voters may be asked to approve a fifth casino -- in addition to ones under construction in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati -- near Youngstown.

Toledo's casino will compete in a market that may already be saturated. According to the Times magazine article, younger players prefer online poker to sitting in a casino. And the number of retirees is limited -- and may be declining as baby boomers die. That means new casinos have to carve out their share from a pie that isn't getting bigger and may be getting smaller, a process called "cannibalization" by industry insiders.

More disturbing, National Review says the day of the $300 million mega-casino may be over. Instead, the future may be in "convenience casinos," such as the unregulated Internet cafes that have proliferated across Ohio in recent years.

In the diminished gambling market, Hollywood Casino isn't likely to destroy the fabric of Toledo. But neither will it cure all of the city's money problems.

Instead, like the slot machines on which it depends, the casino will tease Toledo with glitz and glitter and the promise of jackpots that may be just out of reach.



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