Stage nearly set at Toledo casino

Officials polishing Vegas-style glitz

5/20/2012
BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Richard St. Jean, general manager, says the East Toledo casino will offer gamblers a glamorous setting.
Richard St. Jean, general manager, says the East Toledo casino will offer gamblers a glamorous setting.

Before the sprawling gambling floor, the ornate pillars, and flashy television screens, the Hollywood Casino Toledo was just a construction site, an outer shell of a building with no walls.

That's how casino general manager Richard St. Jean remembered the property overlooking the Maumee River when he visited for the first time in June, 2011.

"What was really fascinating was watching the building grow," Mr. St. Jean said as he sat in his office, which is decorated with Ocean's Eleven and GoodFellas movie posters. "I'm particularly impressed with what we've been able to build and the quality for the amount of money we're spending."

Mr. St. Jean will unveil his $320 million casino to the public May 29 at 2 p.m. in a much anticipated grand opening.

The casino will be the state's second gambling facility to open this month.

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Jason Birney, vice president of marketing, said, "You hear a lot of talk in Ohio about the three Cs. If it's not happening in Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati, it's not happening. I think when gambling rolls out in Ohio and everything settles in, I think that Toledo is going to be the hidden gem."

The building on the Maumee River in East Toledo was only a shell in June, 2011. It now is completed and includes 2,002 slot machines shipped in from Las Vegas as well as a grand buffet and a fine-dining steakhouse.
The building on the Maumee River in East Toledo was only a shell in June, 2011. It now is completed and includes 2,002 slot machines shipped in from Las Vegas as well as a grand buffet and a fine-dining steakhouse.

Before the casino's doors even open, Hollywood Casino Toledo is expected to have more Facebook friends than any of the other 26 Penn National Gaming-owned properties.

The vibe inside the East Toledo casino will be the same over-the-top glamour known to Las Vegas, said Mr. St. Jean, who spent most of his 25 years in the gaming industry working on the strip at places such as the Wild Wild West Gambling Hall & Hotel and the Tropicana Casino and Resort.

The Toledo casino's 2,002 slot machines were shipped in starting in March from Las Vegas, cocktail servers will wear skimpy outfits, and casino restaurants include a grand buffet and a fine-dining steakhouse overlooking the river.

"You literally get a euphoric feeling when you walk into the casino," Mr. St. Jean said. "People are blown away we brought a Las Vegas-style casino of this caliber to Toledo."

Tapping into the excitement for the new smoke-free venue, Hollywood Casino Toledo is advertising in Detroit, its biggest direct competitor, and in Fort Wayne, Ind. The casino is buying newspaper and television advertising in Toledo as well.

The three other Ohio casinos -- starting with the Horseshoe Cleveland, which opened May 14 to a crowd of several thousand -- aren't likely to steal many casino-goers away from Toledo, Mr. St. Jean said.

Two other Las-Vegas style casinos in Cincinnati and Columbus will open later, all permitted under a constitutional amendment that Ohio voters approved in 2009.

"They're really spread out very nicely," Mr. St. Jean said of the four Ohio casinos. "There're very natural break points between each, so really it doesn't remain a very competitive market, unlike Michigan and other states that have 24-plus casinos."

But being a casino operator in Ohio's new gambling era posed challenges. Hollywood Casino Toledo's opening was pushed back two months because of delays in license approval from the state casino control commission.

Mr. St. Jean described it as a "complicated, long, drawn-out process."

"Obviously, people wanted to be very conscientious, cross the T's, dot the I's and make sure they follow the letter of the law because this is a first time. Nobody wanted to rush" he said. "It took a little bit longer than we hoped for."

Another hurdle in growing a casino from the ground up was hiring the staff of slightly more than 1,300 employees and assembling an executive team to set the company's culture, said Mr. St. Jean, adding that he was focused on being one of Toledo's best employers.

The company hired mostly gaming-industry rookies, choosing them for their personalities and customer-service skills, the senior casino executive said.

At job training sessions, some poker and blackjack dealers described themselves as a laid-off construction worker, a restaurant assistant manager who lost her job in the slow economy, a retired educator, and a recent college graduate.

But with staff finally in place and the state's permission granted, Mr. St. Jean said he is ready for what he believes will be a "nice, smooth" opening on May 29.

"The intensity and the excitement just continue to build until you hit the crescendo at the opening," said Mr. St. Jean, who previously worked for Station Casinos as the president of Native American Gaming and oversaw several facilities including the Gun Lake Casino in Wayland, Mich., south of Grand Rapids.

The 49-year-old Boston area native is a married father of three boys and lives in Maumee.

Wearing a tailored suit, he proudly showed off a photograph on the wall of him dressed as Santa Claus, full beard and all, during an employee Christmas party. A casino guard was his elf.

"We're not those serious stiff suits that walk around here," he said. "We love what we do."

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.