Thoughts on Cleveland's New Casino

Cleveland is seeing stars over the opening of its downtown casino. Word is Sinbad came by. So last Friday I went to check it out. I didn’t gamble–had a few Bud Light drafts–but I observed. Here is what stuck out.

A lot of gaudy decorations: chandeliers, gold blinds, patterned carpeting that would make you dizzy if you let it suck you in. The casino was placed in Cleveland’s historic Higbee Building, its history now covered up with faceless textiles and décor designed in a soulless spirit that would make even Liberace mope.

The slot gaming themes can be weird. For instance, they have this whole section that mixes adult gaming with a kind of childhood fantasy attraction. Unicorn motifs, for instance, and then this–a game with the likeness of a young Roger Clemens brandishing a sword, waiting to slay the dragon to save the girl, if not slice the bottom of the gamer’s purse.

I was with a buddy. We were looking at the people. He said, “This doesn’t look like Vegas.” I replied, “It’s Cleveland at a casino.” We both laughed, and I felt better about the place for a minute. He did too.

Why?

Because of the people–it really was all

walks and styles and ages. In that sense, I liked how something attracted a sample of a segregated region into one pile of regular Clevelanders together. I also liked the fact that the people brought a noticeable amount of energy into a spot that would otherwise have been pretty silent.

Of course this will be used as evidence that the casino is economic development. Some already are. From the PD (and no, this isn’t in jest):

What I like most about this economic development project is that it doesn’t discriminate: It takes everybody’s money equally, especially change from those who looked like they had little to begin with…

And don’t worry if you run out of money. This economic development project offers plenty of ATM machines, made by Ohio’s very own Diebold company.

It’s way too early to say if the casino … will succeed and spur more investment or cut into nearby existing development. But the casino is already delivering more than many of the previously heralded economic development projects this city has seen.

If this is Cleveland’s standard of what constitutes economic development, then we are screwed. Because Economic Development 101 teaches you it’s about generating wealth, usually through the creation of human, built, or economic capital. A casino shuffles bucks off the backs of the poor and middle class into the accounts of the rich.

Yes, I know. We get money downtown from people who wouldn’t be there anyway. And there are spin-off effects to local business–I get it. Really.

But I also get this: the casino is a gamble. It is a gamble adding what is essentially a cluster of vice-fueled vibrancy to a downtown that’s organically developing into a place in its own right—a place of people living and working and shopping—a place of conversing, thinking, and generating ideas. In other words, a place fostering the seeds of true economic development.

To that end, there is an old saying: don’t sleep where you play craps. Let’s hope those Clevelanders who found reasons to live downtown don’t find a bigger one to move away. That would be an economic development sin.

Richey Piiparinen

 

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