Thursday, Oct 18, 2018
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Marilou Johanek


Higbee Building lives again as Cleveland bets on casino


When I was growing up, the Higbee Building in downtown Cleveland was one of the wonders of my world. It was big when I was small.

Bursting with anticipation, I would ride the rapid transit (the "rappy," as my grandmother called it) to the Terminal Tower complex downtown. We trudged up to street level, where the storied department store awaited.

For youngsters -- and I suspect adults -- Higbee's was more an experience than a destination. You walked through revolving wooden doors into a magical realm of marble aisles flanked by massive pillars.

I marveled at the elegance of the place -- the enormous chandeliers, the jaw-dropping displays. As a kid hanging on to a grownup's hand for dear life, navigating the shopping colossus was as exhilarating as it was exhausting.

Weary, we'd find our way to the fancy bank of ornate elevator doors, designed in what was described as an "ocean liner" motif. Operators were seated inside.

We got off at the 10th floor and headed to the Silver Grille. Eating at the iconic restaurant was a tradition on trips to the Public Square store. The 1931 art-deco splendor and showy fountains were as unforgettable as the food.

Pint-sized patrons -- now grown up with kids of their own -- fondly remember being served their meals in cardboard mini-ovens. Grown-ups were partial to the menu's famous Welsh rarebit and muffins to die for.

Back in the day, before there was such a thing as a suburban shopping mall, downtown department stores treated customers to ambience in abundance. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, these legendary businesses gave generations of shoppers reasons to browse in a gritty metropolis.

At Christmastime, the department stores would outdo each other in decorations, including a spectacular tree inside the Sterling-Linder-Davis store that spanned several floors.

We would press our faces to the holiday window exhibits at Higbee's every year to see what was different. Inside, we breathlessly pulled our parents to the elaborate North Pole fantasies created to cement childhood memories.

The annual adventure, shared by many Clevelanders past a certain age, is enshrined in scenes from the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. It's a classic rendition of the crazy, wonderful way it was.

But eventually, suburban malls shuttered the giant downtown stores. Cleveland, like other urban centers, lost its retail landmarks to history.

Higbee's, the city's first department store, was the last to close. This week it reopened as Ohio's first casino.

The historic structure that Higbee's acquired in 1929 has been transformed into a glitzy new gamble with bells and whistles and brass accoutrements. The grand opening of Horseshoe Casino Cleveland will be followed by the debuts of Hollywood Casino Toledo on May 29, and of casinos in Columbus and Cincinnati.

After nearly two decades of saying no to casino gambling, Ohio voters decided in 2009 to roll the dice. At the height of the Great Recession, amid massive job losses, an anxious public made a big economic bet.

Casino promoters spent $30 million on slick campaigns that promised jobs and money to a state starved for both. They guaranteed development and economic benefits in declining urban cores.

Skeptics warned that expecting economic miracles from Las Vegas-style casinos was a crapshoot. But if bringing casinos to four cities could get the economy rolling again, 53 percent of voters said, go ahead.

Relying on casinos to revitalize the state's largest cities is an iffy proposition, as Detroit can testify. But in 2009, with unemployment in Ohio hovering around 11 percent, hopeful voters took a chance on an untested theory.

Authorizing four gaming sites in the state might pay healthy dividends not only to developers but also to thousands of employees and revenue-hungry local, county, and state governments. Or the economic windfall might not be what was predicted, and gambling's benefits might not outweigh its risks.

We'll see. For now, people are working and customers are lining up to experience something new in the old Higbee Building. No longer collecting dust as a relic in the heart of the city, it is again bustling with light and life.

May its future build on good memories.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

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