Indiana casino boat with effect on Louisville turns 20
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Two decades ago, a Las Vegas company bet a small fortune — $300 million — that a riverboat casino downriver from Louisville could strike a gusher of cash.
Now, as the former Caesars riverboat marks its 20th anniversary, there’s little question among community leaders, casino executives and industry analysts that the bet has paid off in spades, not only for the global gaming company but for a once cash-starved Indiana county.
Even as new competition in Louisville threatens to slice the casino’s take and a mature gambling market means less money flowing to Indiana tax coffers and two charitable foundations, nobody argues that Horseshoe Southern Indiana hasn’t delivered the kind of economic development jolt that Hoosier lawmakers envisioned when they legalized casinos 25 years ago.
“You’d have to be sitting at the back of a really long bus not to see all the things the casino has done for Harrison County,” county commissioner Kenny Saulman said.
The numbers are staggering. From its opening on Nov. 20, 1998, through last month, the riverboat now known as Horseshoe Southern Indiana has won more than $5.2 billion from gamblers.
The complex about 14 miles downriver from Louisville also has generated more than $1.1 billion in state gaming and admissions taxes. About $474 million of it has flowed to Harrison County, which also received another $181 million in profit sharing.
Voters in Harrison, population 39,300, approved a required referendum to allow a casino to anchor along its shoreline, seizing the opportunity when voters in neighboring Floyd and Clark counties rejected the chance.
Both counties would have been put ahead of Harrison for a gaming license because regulators favored a site closest to Louisville, the new boat’s core market.
Beyond transforming a mostly rural Hoosier county, the boat’s arrival is universally seen as a catalyst for Churchill Downs modernizing its property and competing harder to lure back thousands of patrons who’ve beat a path to the boat, open for business year-round and nearly 24-7.
Churchill executives a decade ago credited the casino for forcing it to freshen its century-old track and add new amenities after seeing its attendance and on-track wagering decline 20 percent. It sank $121 million into an initial renovation and subsequently has plowed millions more into major investments, in large part to stave off the casino competition.
Churchill fired back in a big way this fall, opening its $65 million Derby City Gaming, with 900 “historical racing machines” that feel just like slots. Its first full month of business in October dealt Horseshoe a $2 million drop in slots revenue.
Casino execs recognize such an incursion now can’t go unchecked. Horseshoe is banking on a $85 million land-based facility opening late next year to solidify and grow its customer base.
The switch should help increase gross revenues, the same way such moves have paid off elsewhere, said Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Hannah News Service’s newsletters on Hoosier gambling and legislation.
“It just makes things easier for the property ... (and) people really seem to prefer the convenience of not having to board a boat,” he said.
New competition in Indianapolis and rural French Lick, Indiana, during the last decade has cannibalized Horseshoe’s annual revenues. But nothing’s been harsher than the general downturn in the U.S. gambling market.
While the economy has rebounded, paychecks and discretionary cash for many people haven’t kept pace, said Brad Seigel, Horseshoe’s general manager.
The casino reported $253 million in revenues last year, far short of its historical high of $341 million in 2007. With more gambling expansion in the region, Horseshoe can’t expect to regain the heights of old, Seigel said. “After 20 years, you’d call it a mature market.”
Even with reduced revenues, the cash flowing to Harrison government and two community foundations has been huge, said state Rep. Karen Engleman, a Republican from New Salisbury, Indiana, and a former county auditor.
The cash to local government, about $26 million during the recent fiscal year, has gone to a countywide sewer system, miles of new water lines and even more miles of gravel roads now paved with asphalt. A new Boys & Girls Club facility recently opened, too.
“There’s been a lot of good done with the money,” Engleman said. “They’ve spent here and set aside in other places. They’ve not just blown it all.”
Harrison’s community foundation, which received a record $16 million in revenue sharing contributions a decade ago, now gets about $8 million, said CEO Steve Gilliland.
The foundation has awarded $92 million in grants to fund college scholarships for nearly 2,000 high school students and adults and to pay for preschool for nearly 600 low-income 4-year-olds. It’s given $13 million toward a new county hospital and an array of other projects.
The investment that Saulman, the county commissioner, and other boosters highlight is a $5 million investment in a fiber backbone that’s now extending high-speed internet access to all 12 townships in the county.
In nearby Floyd County, a smaller Horseshoe Foundation has received nearly $60 million in boat cash and awarded $44 million in scholarships. With an emphasis on human services, a big chunk has gone to support soup kitchens, clothes closets and backpacks for low-income students.
Its signature investment is a $20 million commitment to the YMCA in New Albany, said executive director Jerry Finn.
The Y project has triggered a wave of investment in the city’s downtown. New restaurants, boutiques and other shops have sprung up in the last 10 years. “That would not have happened had that Y not been built,” Finn said.
Not everyone is a fan. Anti-gambling opponents had warned any gaming venue was bound to attract seedy elements, and some surfaced in unexpected ways. Take the adult bookstore that opened in 2004 on New Albany’s West Main Street, a location the owners liked for the heavy traffic headed to the casino.
The city spent six years and more than $500,000 in legal fees in a futile battle to shut the place down before the business lost its lease and pulled out in early 2014.
There have been arrests of drug dealers accused of laundering $3 million, cheaters, and parents who’ve left kids in vehicles while they gambled. Police arrested a Virginia woman in the summer of 2000 after she left six children inside an SUV while visiting the slots.
Some 675 people have requested self-exclusion, banning themselves from entry so they can’t lose more of their money.
One of the biggest challenges for the boat has been the mighty Ohio River, which has flooded the casino’s boarding facility and swamped Indiana State Highway 111. When the road floods, according to the casino’s safety plan, the whole place shuts down.
That has cost tens of millions of dollars in lost wagering, and having a land-based venue won’t change that because boat or no boat, the road will still occasionally flood. But other casinos have weathered bridge shutdowns, heavy snow and ice and their own floods, Feigenbaum said, so “you’re a prisoner of your site. That can be good and bad.”
The bigger challenge ahead for Horseshoe and other casinos is staying relevant as demographics shift. As baby boomers who love slots give way to millennials and younger customers, gaming operators will need to offer more interactive, collaborative experiences.
“They’ve got to be able to capture that next generation,” Feigenbaum said. “That’s going to be critical for the casinos of the future.”
Information from: Courier Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com