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Published: Tuesday, 5/29/2012

Businesses plan for economic ripple effect from Hollywood Casino Toledo

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's time.

After years of voter referendums, months of construction, an 11th-hour delay, and what has seemed like a media drumroll over the last few weeks, Hollywood Casino Toledo will finally open its doors today.

It's the moment for which many businesses, politicians, and gambling enthusiasts have been waiting. The casino, just off I-75 on the East Toledo riverfront and hard by the Rossford border, is expected to spur economic growth, motivate tourism, and increase tax revenue for municipalities and school districts, as well as provide a glossy new entertainment option for the area.

"It's going to be terrific," East Toledo Councilman Mike Craig said. "I think it's going to be the most exciting thing to happen in Toledo in years."

While some others cast a skeptical eye at the new development -- citing fears of crime, gambling addictions, and diversion of spending from other area locales -- even people less than enthusiastic about the casino are finding themselves swept up in the buzz.

"The excitement in the air is really electric," said Doris Dubilzig of Rossford, as she played cards at the city's senior center, less than a mile from the casino, on a recent afternoon.

The 79-year-old woman said she's not interested in gambling herself, but said many people she knows are and almost everyone in town is talking about the new gaming venue.

"It's going to be really something if you're up to it," she said.

Restaurants, hotels, retail stores, and tourism operators are all hoping to get a piece of the action. Officials at Hollywood Casino Toledo expect to bring in 2.8 million people annually.

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Although the exact impact that the $320 million complex has on the region has yet to be determined, plenty of people are staking their bets.

In downtown Rossford, where the casino's sand-colored facade is clearly visible from the main drag, nine new businesses have set up shop in the last year, Mayor Neil A. MacKinnon III said.

These include a cigar shop, a combination pawn shop and consignment store, and a Chinese restaurant, many filling up storefronts that once sat vacant.

The new business owners point to the casino as a major factor in their decisions to move into the area.

"It just seemed like a real ideal location," said Isaac Hubbard of Holland, who opened the Rossford Cigar Bar in October with his father, Tracy.

The Hubbards said they hope to attract about 5 percent of the 2,000 people a day they expect will drive past their store on Superior Street en route to the gaming house. They are also considering setting up their own shuttle service to transport customers back and forth from the casino.

"We realize not everyone is going to stop here, but there's going to be a percentage of people who pop in," Tracy Hubbard said. "We've been watching the progress and construction of the casino and we're very, very hopeful."

Christina Zheng, manager of the Amerasia restaurant nearby, said her family expanded the business from Northwood into Rossford for much the same reason. Although the casino will have four restaurants of its own, Ms. Zheng said she is counting on customers and casino employees looking for less expensive, Asian fare.

"We're expecting a lot of people," Ms. Zheng said. "We can't wait to see what it's really going to be like. We've imagined, but we really can't wait to see what it will bring to the whole town."

Ripple effects?

Owners of Toledo restaurants also have their fingers crossed that the casino will have a positive effect for them. Most are taking a wait-and-see attitude, however.

Some restaurants fear the casino's on-site dining options could take business away from their establishments, while others hope the net impact of an increase in visitors to the area will push some extra customers their way. Some also see the casino's 1,300 employees as a potential source of business.

"It's going to be a bit of competition for all the restaurants in Toledo and the entertainment dollar," said Neal Kovacik, general manager of the historic Oliver House on the southeast edge of downtown Toledo. But "I think it's going to bring more people into the area and I want to be optimistic."

Ed Beczynski, owner of the Blarney Irish Pub and Grill in downtown Toledo, said while casinos tend to be self-contained, the absence of a hotel at the Hollywood Casino could lead to more visitors staying downtown. That would be good for businesses like his, he said.

"With the shuttles going to and from the downtown hotels and the casino, that's a plus for the downtown businesses," Mr. Beczynski said. "I'm excited that they chose Toledo and there's going to be economic development in the area and all the jobs they've created. … But as a business owner, we'll just have to wait and see."

Area hotels, meanwhile, are already seeing an impact. Several hotels said bookings and calls have increased as the casino's inauguration nears.

"We've definitely seen an uptick," said Jim Koen, general manager of the Grand Plaza Hotel on the downtown waterfront. "Is it overwhelming? No. But it's definitely more business."

Mike Carlson, general manager at the Park Inn, said bookings there have gone up. The casino will be running a free shuttle service to his hotel and the Grand Plaza.

Positive signs

In communities surrounding the casino, hotels also reported a boost in business.

Maurissa Morales, receptionist at Americas Best Value Inn in Northwood, said bookings there are up about 15 percent.

Mary Helge, general manager at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Rossford, said she's seen a boom in reservations made by visitors from Detroit.

"I thought that was interesting," Ms. Helge said. "I think [the casino's owner Penn National Gaming] has done an excellent job of targeting that market."

Over time, Ms. Helge said she hopes the casino will attract more business conventions to the area, as well as tour groups.

Mr. Koen said he's getting calls from bus tour companies operating in the Midwest, and Toledo's visitors bureau reported that the casino's presence has attracted at least two conventions to the area for next year.

Such news is music to the ears of government and tourism officials.

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell said the casino will help put the region on the map as a tourist destination. It's also a morale boost for residents of the area, he added.

"I think it's going to have a major impact on the attitude of the citizens of Toledo, just because something big is happening," the mayor said. As a tourism draw, "it allows us to trot out our assets -- great restaurants, a great zoo, the Toledo Museum of Art. It allows us to market our city in a very positive way."

On average, tourists visiting a community in Ohio for the day spend $107 per person, said Richard Nachazel, president of the convention and visitor's bureau Destination Toledo. That more than doubles to $249 when people stay overnight, he added.

"It's definitely a great thing for tourism. It gives another reason for people to spend extra time in the city, whether it's an afternoon or overnight," he said. That "makes a big economic difference."

Revenue from the casino will affect Toledo government directly. Finance Director Patrick McLean said he's budgeted $3.4 million in casino taxes for this year.

"It's a tremendous shot in the arm," Mr. McLean said. "We're excited to have them in the community. They've been great neighbors already."

Other reactions

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about Hollywood Casino, though.

Toledo Councilman D. Michael Collins and some area residents said they don't buy into assertions the casino will be an economic panacea for the area.

"I don't anticipate the revenues are going to be the flotation device to bring us into a sound financial picture," he said. "There's only so much disposable cash in Toledo. That cash that will be spent at the casino will not be spent at other venues. It's going to hurt small businesses."

Some residents said they are concerned the casino will spur an increase in crime, traffic, and addiction problems.

"It's going to bring a lot of crazy stuff," said Shannon Rohl, a stay-at-home mother in Rossford who admitted she's on the fence about the casino. "I just hope for our kids' sake that it doesn't turn into a mini-Reno [Nevada]. … We don't need the crime, the hookers, and the drugs."

Perhaps the most surprising lackluster response came from some of Toledo's most dedicated gamblers.

Waiting to get on a Lakefront Lines tour bus to Caesars casino in Windsor, Ontario, Thursday morning, several Toledo-area seniors said they don't think the Hollywood Casino will be as good as those in Canada and Detroit.

They cited perks they get for going to the out-of-town casinos, the fun they have traveling to another city for a day or two, the camaraderie of their tour bus companions, and what they perceive as a lack of transportation options to the new location.

Rudi and Betty Beham of Sylvania said they take the bus to Caesars casino once a week. They pay $9 round-trip for the ticket, and receive $25 of free gambling tokens once they get there, along with other perks.

"That's a pretty good deal," said Mr. Beham, 83.

"We'll probably go just to see [the Hollywood Casino]. But if they don't give you perks or anything...." Mrs. Beham said with a shrug.

Travelers to the Detroit casinos pay $18 round trip and get $30 gambling money to spend, Lakefront bus driver William Brann said.

At Hollywood Casino, they will offer $5 for slots for every player who is part of a group bus trip of 15 people or more.

Those incentives will be offered from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, said John McNamara, a casino spokesman.

Mr. Brann said he's not worried the Hollywood Casino Toledo will entice away his customers.

"They're all going to go check it out. This company will probably take a hit for a couple of weeks," he predicted. "After they see what it's like, they'll be back."

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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