Caesars casino in Indiana: Gambling company opens land-based facility

Thursday 12th December 2019

Las Vegas gambling giant Caesars Entertainment unveiled its new $90 million land-based casino Thursday in Harrison County, Indiana, marking a new era as the Ohio River complex sails into its third decade.

Company executives snipped a ribbon and opened the doors to the public at noon, giving way to a big crowd waiting to get the first glimpses of the new venue.

Despite mounting competition from Churchill Downs' new Derby City Gaming facility, Caesars general manager Brad Seigel said the combination of a single-level casino with slot machines, table games and a sports book ringed by restaurants and tavern options makes Caesars more of a complete destination, not just a place to gamble.

The new property "makes us the very best spot in all hospitality, gaming, restaurants ... everything else," Seigel said.

Even though the core business centers on 1,300 slot machines and 70 new poker, blackjack and other table games, Caesars' new sports book has drawn new patrons, he said.

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Many gambling operations in Indiana have jumped at the chance to abandon once-required casino boats to shift to river- and lake-side operations after the Indiana General Assembly approved land-based casinos in 2015.

Moving to dry land eliminates many costs related to security and keeping a maritime crew on the payroll, even as the 5,000-passenger Glory of Rome riverboat remained docked and stationary for several years after Indiana lawmakers dropped the requirement that Indiana riverboats cruise on the river. (The Coast Guard required annual two-hour cruises, but no gambling took place during the yearly test runs.)

The vessel will be pulled from its berth and shipped to a new location after it's sold. There's no timeline yet for that, spokeswoman Jenny Howard said.

To celebrate "the boat," as locals call it, the company held a bon voyage party last weekend. The floating property officially closed at 6 a.m. Monday morning, and the staff and crew scrambled to move slots to the new 110,000-square-space inside the casino pavilion.

All table games are new and were assembled on site.

Seeing the new place was a big priority for hundreds of Kentuckians and folks from nearby Indiana counties who crowded into a corridor Thursday morning for a place in line to enter the casino when the ropes dropped at noon.

Within minutes of the official opening, the ring and ping of slot machines could be heard, and the smell of cigarette smoke filtered toward where Caesars held a brief ceremony with men and women costumed in Roman dress.

Above the freshly carpeted floor and clusters of brightly colored slots terminals, large glass chandeliers lit the room. Gray terrazzo tile floors cover the spaces on the edges of the room where patrons dine and drink.

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Christina Henning, a caregiver from Frankfort, Kentucky, drove over Thursday morning, eager to the see the new digs and spend an afternoon relaxing and playing slots.

"I kind of like the boat better. This is different," Henning said, noting that her husband Matthew was having "terrible" luck on the slots.

Betty Quigley, who ventures monthly to a casino with her daughter Cindy, gave the casino a thumbs up. It helped that she'd just won $457 on one of her first plays at the slots. "I love it. I think it's beautiful," she said.

The place looks and feels more like Las Vegas, Alvin Calvert, of Brooks, Kentucky, said as he munched on fried chicken at a table. "It's nice. It's better than the boat."

Caesars is focused on luring back many patrons who've begun skipping the drive along Ind. 111 to the complex about 12 miles downriver from downtown to stay in Louisville and play at Churchill Downs' Derby City, with its 1,000 historical horse racing machines on Poplar Level Road.

Within the opening months in fall 2018, Caesars saw its slots revenue drop as patrons began to try out Churchill's choice.

But the arms race didn't let up. Indiana approved sports betting, and it launched in September. Bettors wagered more than $147 million last month at 11 casino properties, a $50 million bump over October, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission.

Caesars' handle of $1.4 million and $84,000 in taxable gross revenues last month was the second lowest in the state, but it is expected to pick up with the land-based investment and after the company launches an app to allow gamblers anywhere in the state to place wagers from their phones and laptops.

The new offerings have been a factor in skimming some business, not only in Louisville, Tony Rodio, Caesars' chief executive, said in a brief interview, but it's not diminished the company's confidence in this marketplace.

The new casino space "separates us from what they're delivering across the river." For one, sports wagering "drives a ton of foot traffic," Rodio said.

Harrison County, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenues since the casino opened in 1998, is grateful for the newest investment, County Commissioner Jim Heitkemper said. This is "a great big step for Harrison County. (Caesars has) been wonderful to have here."

The biggest concern on the horizon is the potential for the Sherman Minton Bridge, which carries traffic and most patrons over Interstate 64 to Indiana, to close during a planned reconstruction in the next two years. Indiana highway officials are being urged by elected leaders on both sides of the Ohio not to close the span entirely, but to leave at least one lane open to traffic.

Either way, headaches reaching the casino from Louisville risk sending gamblers elsewhere for an outing or an overnight stay.

"It's a big deal," Seigel said, but they're hopeful those in charge eventually decide keeping a lane open is best for patrons and businesses on both sides of the river.

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