PERSPECTIVE: Casino backers pitch local government payouts

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) 5-08

Backers of the latest attempt to bring a casino to Ohio are trying a new marketing approach: glitz, local government payouts and inevitability.

Two ads for the $600 million casino proposed for the November ballot have been running. One shows a map with a blackened Ohio surrounded by colorful states that either have casinos or are considering legislation authorizing them.

The other shows actress Vicki Lawrence in her “Mama’s Family” garb pointing to an Ohio map and saying, “What’s missing? A casino.”

The ads are designed to help a campaign to collect 402,275 valid signatures of Ohio voters to get the issue on the ballot. If successful, the issue would allow the construction of the casino in Clinton County about 45 miles north of Cincinnati.

The pitch is designed to educate voters that Ohio tax dollars are “leaving the state at 65 mph” for places such as southeast Indiana, Detroit and Wheeling, W.Va. The casino backers are touting the idea as a destination site for tourists “complete with a five star hotel, golf course, spa, local gourmet restaurants, a full scale convention center, live entertainment and music,” in addition, of course, to slot machines, blackjack and craps.

To drum up local support, the backers say they’ll make direct payments to all 88 county governments. Payments per year would range from $276,000 to Morgan County to more than $25 million to Cuyahoga County, the backers project on their Web site.

The strategy could help this year’s campaign work in a state where others have failed – miserably, said Terry Casey, a consultant to the pro-casino Eastern Shawnee tribe who is not involved with the group seeking the southwest Ohio casino.

“This is different, but it is selling two key features, one being a destination resort, which will create many more construction and other jobs. The second innovation is that by sharing their money with each county, they can sell it as helping the local sheriff,” Casey said.

Getting locals on board is key because statewide support for casinos has never been evident.

The failed campaigns of 1996 and 2006 to expand gambling were unsuccessful in touting the benefits expanded gambling could provide statewide.

The 1996 campaign promised thousands of jobs to depressed areas such as Youngstown, Cleveland and Lorain, where riverboat casinos would be docked. The 2006 campaign promised college scholarships with part of the proceeds.

A 1990 campaign to put a lakefront casino in Lorain emphasized the idea of a tourist attraction, but the primary pitch for that one, also unsuccessful, was jobs.

The current campaign is being waged by a group of Cleveland-area developers known as and Lakes Entertainment Inc., a Minnesota-based developer that specializes in Indian tribe casinos and online poker.

The backers can expect powerful opposition. Gov. Ted Strickland already has spoken out against it. He certainly will be joined by outspoken casino opponent Sen. George Voinovich and the coalition of church and antigambling forces that led the three previous successful campaigns.

But selling the idea that a state without a casino is somehow less of a state has never been tested in Ohio. Lyle Berman, chief executive of Lakes Entertainment, said if Ohio gets its own casino, it will draw back the crowds that flock to casinos in surrounding states.