Soapdish: Getting Lucky in Cincinnati

Friday morning, amidst a healthy dose of speechifying, dignitary recognition and gold dust-sprinkled soil tossing, the new casino at Broadway Commons officially broke ground. Dubbed "Horseshoe Casino - Cincinnati," the $400 million gambling emporium is expected to the fill the vast and unsightly blight of a parking pit once known as Broadway Commons. Included in the impressive plans are 100,000 square feet of gaming, three "outwardly facing" restaurants, the always-requisite buffet smorgasbord (America!), a food court, a coffee shop and a main floor "feature bar." With a crowd of 165 or so local politicos, celebrities and dignitaries in attendance, the flesh-pressing at the entrance threatened to create a human log jam of epic proportions. Fortunately, Rock Gaming President and COO Matt Cullen was able to herd the peripatetic politicos to their seats, in the process reciting a laundry list of those in attendance for singular, ego-stroking recognition (as each individually stood and received a perfunctory dollop of applause). One glaring omission by Cullen, however, was Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, who then jumped up to tell Cullen (jokingly, we hope) that he just made his "biggest mistake yet."

It was a carefully choreographed spectacle by Rock Gaming and Caesar's, the latter being nothing more than the single largest casino company in the world. A heated tent was set up on the site at the corner of Court and Broadway, replete with chandeliers, decorative plantings and a bullpen platform for the multitudes of media hordes that descended downtown for the event. Caesar's CEO Greg Loveman, an Indianapolis native, was also on hand for the festivities, along with a cadre of Caesar's and Rock execs. As the ceremony unfolded, Rock CEO Dan Gilbert took to the stage, touching on his ardent belief in the revitalization of Midwest cities in the former "rust belt," the arduous process of getting the project from infancy to this point, and, among other things, his apparent disdain for endless meetings and dealings with attorneys. Although tempted mightily, I resisted the urge to ask him about his rather curious attachment to comic sans font. Fortunately, the comic relief was provided by the always delightful photo op of politicians and dignitaries in ill-fitting ceremonial gold helmets (Cullen, to his credit, declined to don the helmet on his carefully coiffed cranium).

Regardless, spirits were generally high among all in attendance. The plan is for the casino to open in late 2012, and cash-strapped City and County officials up in the front rows were clearly salivating at the prospect of an additional $21.2 million (City), $12.2 million (County) and $14.1 million (Hamilton County school districts) annually in gaming tax revenues. Indeed, Hamilton County Commission President Greg Hartmann noted that "You can't cut your way to prosperity…you have to work on economic development as well." With a statement like that, it sounds to me like Commissioner Hartmann clearly should be a vocal proponent of the proposed streetcar system, given that it is a proven tool for economic development, expanding the city's tax base and increasing overall tax revenues. Speaking of the streetcar, I had the opportunity to speak with Cullen about the possibility of connecting the casino to the proposed system, a possibility Mayor Mallory also mentioned in his comments. Cullen noted that they are "continuing to monitor the project," and that he, Dan Gilbert and Rock have a "philosophical bias" in favor of the streetcar. Indeed, Gilbert is one of the principal private business leaders leading and financing the construction of the M1 light rail line in downtown Detroit, and Cullen is the volunteer CEO of the project.

Continuing on the theme of "connectivity," I also chatted a bit with Bridging Broadway VP Clara Rice. As devoted readers will recall, Bridging Broadway, per their mission statement, is a local non-profit organization "with the singular goal of maximizing the casino development's capability to be a catalyst for improving the quality of life for downtown Cincinnati." While all well and good, to be painfully candid, distilling the organization's raison d'être has, for me at least, been something of an amorphous task in terms of the actual end game. By that I mean, there's no reason, save for the perfunctory PR and good will, that the casino should actually listen to their recommendations. As the group has evolved, however, it appears that they have transitioned more from the desire to demand that the casino be a "good neighbor," and more towards maximizing the impact that an additional 6 million visitors annually will have on the surrounding community. In so doing, Bridging Broadway has aligned with the city in conducting in-depth studies of the surrounding neighborhoods such as Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine, and breaking them down even further into more specialized "districts" such as the Main Street, Justice and Design Districts (I was dismayed to see the "Reading Road Bail Bonds District" not make the cut). The goal, according to Bridging Broadway's Stephen Samuels, is to "fill the gaps" and "eliminate the edges," thereby complimenting the existing districts. Ultimately, they hope to integrate the casino into the community as a whole, maximizing its impact not just as an insular, money-minting goliath, but also as a ripple in a pond which radiates outward into the immediate community.

I recently attended a presentation by Bridging Broadway and city representatives to the Council's Livable Cities committee. While the presentation was replete with a lot of cliché buzzwords such as "drilling down," "metrics," "visioning" and "synergy," it's clear that the group has put a lot of energy and resources towards the project. Indeed, two well-attended "community dialogues" have been conducted by Bridging Broadway to date, with a third scheduled for March 12. The group is looking to complete its report at the end of March and provide recommendations to the city sometime in early April. After reviewing the multi-colored data maps, graphics and statistics in the Phase I Update, I look forward to seeing the finished product.

For its part, the city is also conducting its own study, assessing the condition of various streetscapes and pedestrian corridors in and around the casino site. This includes the mundane yet critical issues such as sidewalk width, streetlights and tree plantings. Not surprisingly, many of the primary Pendleton pedestrian corridors are lacking in these areas.

Whatever the end result is, it is indeed encouraging that both the city as well as the community, via Bridging Broadway, is actively engaged. As a side note, however, after engaging in what Bridging Broadway's Rice deemed a game of human "frogger" in attempting to cross the street in order to get to the press conference, I would humbly suggest that they build actual pedestrian bridges as opposed to metaphorical ones. Yet I digress.

The Horseshoe Cincinnati represents an extraordinary opportunity to integrate a large-scale casino into a compact urban site. Bridging Broadway, in coordination with the city, have undertaken the admirable and considerable task of developing a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use and mixed-income environment to promote economic development and connect the casino with its surrounding neighborhoods. After witnessing how the once-promised urban, integrated Detroit casinos built fortresses unto themselves, it's certainly clear that the city of Cincinnati, Bridging Broadway and the casino developers are going about this in the right way.

Photography by Scott Beseler.

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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