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What Michael Stanley has to do with the Success of the Cleveland Casino

18 October 2011 One Comment

Downtown revitalizations are notorious for cookie-cutter and copycat approaches.  You want to be like Miami? Build a waterfront club.  Vegas? A casino of course.  Indianapolis you say? Well, you better get a world-class convention center.

Here in Cleveland we are in the process of building all this and more. In fact we may just become the collective of everyplace that our diaspora brethren have left us for.

Let’s hope not. In fact I hope this time the leaders listen to themselves talking when acknowledging a basic tenant of economic development: be your damn self. Be Cleveland. Clarifying, let’s take the Cleveland casino’s process and project as a test case of what this means exactly.

The Cleveland casino keeps being held up by Rock Gaming as a game-changer in gaming.  Specifically, the casino will be integrated within the fabric of a city core as opposed to the traditional business model of keeping folks zombied inside casino walls until their bodies need daylight and air. Insular design and build-up is key to the latter, whereas Gilbert et al. are going for a more outward- facing aesthetic, as well as a partnership with local businesses. Said the Plain Dealer recently:

“Their [Rock Gaming] big bet: that their concept of a high-style, up-scale “urban” casino that feeds on the character of a city and its attractions as much as on its slot machines will make them wildly successful and, in the process, revitalize rust belt cities.”

The words that stood out here were “feeds on the character of a city”. Big words. Great logic. As Cleveland’s got character, a lot. And people—despite the ha, ha Cleveland sucks jokes of yesterday’s comedians—understand this. So naturally: play it up.

Are they? Lets take a look.

First, the good: the decision for urban infill in Cleveland’s Public Square is smart.  The space languishes at the moment, and while the casino’s placement will bring in more traffic, I doubt the subtle industrial chic design will nullify a centrally authentic—if gritty—Cleveland public space (Think: buses, hot dogs, and cigarettes [and yes, the occasional fight]). What is more likely is a meshing of Cleveland day-to-day with weekend tourists, with the result a mix of real and escape—and a subsequent avoidance of a complete sanitation of a central Cleveland space.

Also, the casino itself will not have a full-service restaurant, a hotel, stages for live shows, or shops.  Instead, according to Rock Gaming, partnerships with area restaurants and entertainment venues would allow folks to be “comped” at local establishments. Good, get the people out to mingle with the people. As this enmeshing represents a new era of casino development that is actually a retro reach-back to that old school scrabble of the original Vegas strip. This prospect actually brings to mind to a time I keep hearing from my parent’s generation, or that 60’s and 70’s of “Short Vincent”, the clubs, and an excitement not sullied by such falsity as bull rides at Cadillac Ranch.

Smokes. Cards. Drinks. Bad hair. Good local food. Bring it.

Now, the bad.  So, about that “new era of casino development”…well, the reason it has come about was because the bunker model that has ruled much recent casino development created dead surroundings. From the Plain Dealer:

“The original casinos of Nevada sent their customers outside for food and entertainment and downtown Las Vegas and Reno thrived, he said. Those downtowns faded in the 1990s, when casinos began connecting to parking garages with pedestrian bridges…and creating the “island casinos” prevalent today.”

So what is Gilbert et al doing? Creating a pedestrian tunnel to a parking garage, as well as a souped up car port called a Visitor’s Center that will simply serve as a staging area for those folks waiting for their cars—which means not walking the streets to get to their cars. Not good. What’s worse, they are planning to stick the pedestrian tunnel into the façade of an existing landmark. Architecture Steven Litt wrote “it was like poking a straw in Mona Lisa’s nose”. And if that wasn’t bad enough: a historic piece of Cleveland’s flesh called the Columbia Building was demolished recently so that a Sarasota-style piece of architectural unmentionables will dot an intersection that has historically housed Cleveland’s soul. This is really dispiriting, and is in direct contradiction to the message of building a casino “that feeds on the character of a city”.

Also, I think the concept needs work, or the brand. Rock Gaming paired with Caesars and it was subsequently chosen to adopt Caesar’s “Horseshoe” brand. Given other brands like Rio, Flamingo, Showboat, etc. sound worse, Cleveland does not exactly bring to mind visions of tumbleweed and horseback. So why the Horseshoe? Why not create a brand distinctive to Cleveland? A rock and roll brand would be perfect.  Noise, lights, screams, sin—a rebel underbelly at play in the ongoing of a social experience—this is gambling and rock. So why not have a rock-themed casino that plays heavily of the fact that “Moondog” Alan Freed and Michael Stanley are bad asses and—by extension—so is Cleveland. Distinguishing your locale with a solid and genuine brand and experience is what will make this casino work. As it is what makes the city-as-a-destination strategy work…

Look, this is not meant to browbeat the casino, it is only meant to keep reemphasizing what we all know—that people go to different cities because they are different. And people will come back to those different cities that successfully differentiate their heart and mind and style and past into an experience that leaves the visitor wanting to come back for more.

Be yourself, then, Cleveland. It’s becoming.

(The kids playing in the baby pool with smokestacks in the background is priceless in this video.)

–Richey Piiparinen