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Published: Thursday, 5/1/2008

Ohio casino developers say Minn. man is lead investor


COLUMBUS - Months after they unveiled their plans, developers behind an effort to persuade voters to legalize a single $600 million casino resort in southwest Ohio yesterday identified a Minneapolis-based casino operator as their principal financial backer.

Lyle Berman, the 66-year-old chief executive officer of the publicly traded Lakes Entertainment Inc., has been involved in both private and tribal casinos in Las Vegas, southwestern Michigan, and Mississippi, among other locations. He's chairman of the televised World Poker Tour.

Cleveland-area developers Rick Lertzman and Brad Pressman will introduce Mr. Berman to Ohio in a series of press events across the state beginning today. They will be in Toledo tomorrow.

The project's backers are circulating petitions to gather at least 402,225 valid signatures of registered voters to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot. If successful, the casino would be near Wilmington in rural Clinton County, some 180 miles south of Toledo off I-71 between Columbus and Cincinnati.

"We believe the project will directly benefit the people of Ohio by creating a large number of jobs in the state and also generate millions in tax revenues that will go directly to the counties on a per-capita basis, to be spent as each county wishes," Mr. Berman said.

Lake Entertainment Inc. announced its involvement in the project yesterday. Repeated efforts to change the constitution to permit casino gaming have failed repeatedly over the last two decades, most recently a 2006 effort to link slot machines at racetracks with college scholarships.

Mr. Lertzman said Mr. Berman joined the project after the location had been selected but before the process began to gather signatures.

"We knew him in the 1990s," Mr. Lertzman said. "We knew this would take a lot of funding, so when we reached out for a partner, we knew the only person to call was Lyle. He appreciated what we were doing and was excited about the prospects.

"He had just built a $450 million casino outside South Bend, Ind., a beautiful structure," he said. "It's just what we're talking about - no neon, nothing glitzy, no exploding volcano. It really had the Midwestern sensibility, a classy entertainment complex."

Lakes Entertainment operates the Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo, Mich., off Lake Michigan near the Indiana border. The casino, open less than a year, is owned by the Pokagon Indian tribe.

"[Mr. Berman] was all in favor of every aspect [of the Ohio plan]," Mr. Lertzman said. "He knows what would work in this state. Brad did the demographic assessment. He liked the central location. It's within 100 miles of 6 million people."

Myohionow.com LLC, the group behind the Ohio effort, has begun airing television and radio ads featuring the likes of Vicki Lawrence and Toledo native Jamie Farr, a sign of confidence it will be able to clear the signature hurdle to put the issue on the ballot.

The Toledo ads play up the fact the casino would be far from the city but the region still would benefit financially from the venture. Taxes generated by bets would be distributed among all 88 counties on a per-capita basis.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.

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