The Horseshoe Casino
Until recently, most American casinos were designed as dens of sin, squirreled away in a windowless box somewhere on the edge of town. "Now most people have the opportunity to game 24 hours a day, and people get that it's a form of entertainment," says Matt Cullen, president and COO of Rock Gaming, a Detroit-based casino developer. That shift has allowed casinos to act more like multifaceted entertainment complexes, with music and dining that lure in non-gamblers, as the splashy, high-end developments like CityCenter in Vegas can attest. But in most of the country, these economic juggernauts are still walled up or relegated to the other side of the tracks, which does nothing for a lagging urban center. Rock Gaming is bucking that tradition by opening a casino in a beautiful historic department store smack dab in the heart of downtown Cleveland.
The Higbee department store in Cleveland before the casino's renovation
"We wanted to make an investment that allows the casino to be successful and put it in a place that allows the downtown to be successful," Cullen says. Now Rock Gaming is taking urban casinos to other post-industrial city centers in hopes that they'll serve as powerful economic catalysts.
The World Series of Poker room at the Cleveland casino
Rock Gaming had a unique tie to Cleveland: Its founder, Dan Gilbert (who started the retail mortgage lender Quicken Loans), also owns the Cavaliers. "The project came from the desire to do something for the city, and then the casino came later," Cullen says. "We took a look at gaming and thought, what if we do this differently? Instead of putting a casino at a freeway interchange 10 miles outside of town, we could incorporate it into the urban fabric and it could be an innovative economic engine."
The main gaming floor at the Horseshoe Cleveland
Locating the casino in a dense urban environment--near the city's popular Public Square--allowed it to build upon the existing assets of the city. Instead of self-contained hotels and restaurants, for example, the casino wanted to support existing local businesses, so they worked out deals that allowed the casino to offer comps at these businesses. To Cleveland residents, this was the most powerful statement, says David Gilbert (no relation to Dan) of Positively Cleveland, the city's tourism and marketing agency. "One of the downsides of casinos in places like Detroit is that although they produce dollars, they don't support any additional development," he says. "We're thrilled because they're contracting big blocks of rooms downtown, with high-end patrons buying meals at the local restaurants."
An interior shot of the Horsehoe Cleveland
Besides an influx of tourism dollars--of which David Gilbert said they'd been losing "millions" to neighboring states like Indiana and Pennsylvania--the casino is estimated to bring more than 1,600 casino jobs to the area. Cullen says that there are many jobs which require no college degree but still offer a lucrative career path and which could help alleviate high unemployment and improve quality of life for residents. They also tried to represent the diversity of the city: "We achieved almost 50% economic integration with minority businesses and women-owned businesses to give everyone the opportunity to participate," Cullen says. Even the state referendum that had to be passed in 2009 to allow gambling back into Ohio was engineered to funnel money to the region, Cullen says: 85% of the money generated is going back to the city and county.
Phase II of the Horseshoe Cleveland
One of the goals for the design of Rock Gaming's casinos is to help transform urban areas into 24/7 cities--meaning more people are on the streets and soliciting businesses throughout the day and night. Large windows and plazas shower the interiors with light and give a transparency to what are usually bunker-like buildings. And pedestrian connectivity was important to help knit the buildings into the surrounding neighborhoods, instead of a vast expanse of parking spaces that surround most gaming facilities. David Gilbert says although they don't have hard statistics on the casino yet since it opened just last month, anecdotally, he says the city's urban core now has heavier foot traffic. "I've worked downtown for 20 years," he says. "Now around this area you're seeing real activity. It is absolutely a function of the casino."
The site plan for Cincinnati's casino, currently under construction
Elsewhere in the state, Rock Gaming's second project, the $400 million Horseshoe Cincinnati, is expected to be completed next year, with an even more ambitious reach into the local urban realm. Here the casino is situated between a mix of freeways, industrial buildings, and residential neighborhoods filled with old-stock housing. The architecture had to be responsive to those cues without overwhelming them. A large urban lawn outside the casino will welcome concerts and festivals, and will add much-needed greenspace to the area. Cullen says the project has already spurred more changes in the neighborhood. "The most exciting thing is to see the communities start to respond from a development standpoint, planning new businesses and new residential projects," he says.
Bridging Broadway's proposal for creating connectivity into local neighborhoods
In Cincinnati, the project was at first met with skepticism by some civic leaders, according to Stephen Samuels, an urban designer. "There was marginal support for it, just enough to pass, and the way the legislation was written gave the community very little control," he remembers. But instead of brooding about it, he helped rally a group of local stakeholders and formed a nonprofit called Bridging Broadway that would help maximize the casino's positive impact on the city. "The message was, this is happening, and for those 47% of you who voted against it, you can either do nothing or you can get involved." Working with the University of Cincinnati's Community Design Center, the group laid out a series of goals for the design of the project, from developing corridors that could connect nearby neighborhoods, to encouraging better pedestrian access, to making infrastructural improvements that benefit local businesses.
The Horseshoe Cincinnati will transform a parking lot into a gaming center
Many of Bridging Broadway's suggestions are being incorporated into the casino, like their recommendation to place restaurants and retail around the perimeter of the development. Additionally, $100,000 of public art will be incorporated into the street improvements. Although the casino was at first apprehensive of the group's efforts, Samuels thinks the two parties have been able to work together to build a stronger project. "They have been very respectful of us, and as our study has been utilized, they couldn't be more supportive of it."
The site plan for a Baltimore casino which is currently awaiting approval
Now Rock Gaming is looking outside of Ohio for additional projects. A plan for Baltimore includes a similar siting downtown, near Raven Stadium, as well as connectivity between the casino and the city. Like in Cleveland and Cincinnati, the Baltimore casino would be located near other attractions and be part of a larger draw for locals and tourists alike.
A rendering for the Baltimore casino, which will be located near Raven Stadium
With its home base in Detroit, Cullen says that Rock Gaming has a legitimate passion for helping other cities which are navigating similar challenges due to changing industrial and financial trends. "Our general premise is that if these urban areas were a stock, they'd be undervalued," Cullen says. "There's an opportunity here." Especially since so many American cities are trying desperately to revitalize their downtowns, Cullen thinks that urban casinos are something which could translate to any community hoping to bring more people around day and night. "It's a transferral approach that could achieve the same thing across the country."

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