This fall, an estimated 5 million annual visitors will start plunking down gaming dollars on the city’s West Side. Community leaders aim to build on the momentum.
It’s a blustery, cold and gray late November day, but from his office in a trailer on a muddy worksite off West Broad Street, Ameet Patel sees nothing but blue skies ahead.
“I’ve been on an incredible joyride here,” says Patel, who was named general manager of Hollywood Casino Columbus in August. “Between the community involvement, colleges, charities, construction development, planning, designing, recruiting, it seems like I just landed here two weeks ago.”
The last few months have been busy indeed, as Penn National Gaming builds and readies the 128-acre casino site for a late 2012 opening. Like a well-prepped coach, Patel outlines his game plan for the next year. The first quarter will bring the rest of the senior management team, including assistant general manager Scott Saunders and vice president of marketing Rikki Tanenbaum. A CFO and VPs of casino operations and human resources will follow.
In the second quarter, the team will develop employment criteria, followed by third-quarter employee recruiting, training and development. Dealer training takes eight to 12 weeks, culinary training four to six weeks.
On opening day, which Patel hopes will be before Thanksgiving, visitors will see a major water feature at the casino entrance, mature landscaping, an attached 2,000-vehicle parking garage, a buffet, an entertainment lounge—featuring both national and local acts—and what Patel anticipates will be “one of the finest steakhouses in the city.” Oh, and gambling, too: 3,000 slot machines, 76 table games and 30 poker tables, enough to host national tournaments, says Patel. Later phases could see the addition a hotel and a dedicated RV lot.
Patel’s orderly plans for the rollout of the $400 million project stand in contrast to the back-and-forth battle to even get the casino built. Despite Franklin County voters’ overwhelming “no” vote, the city got one of three casinos allowed under a successful 2009 statewide gaming referendum. Next came a tussle, and another ballot issue, to relocate the project from its planned Arena District location to the West Side.
In November, Columbus City Council agreed to annex the property from Franklin Township; in a late-game twist, the city agreed to direct up to a third of casino-tax revenues to finance the $42.5 million public purchase of Nationwide Arena from Nationwide Realty Investors and millions more to operate the arena through 2039, the Columbus Dispatch reported. The annexation also settled a lawsuit Penn National had filed against the city and Franklin County in a bid to get sewer and water services without annexation.
Under the settlement, in exchange for annexation—and the estimated $24 million in annual casino tax revenue—Columbus will provide sewer and water and pay $15 million toward site cleanup, the Dispatch reported. In addition, Nationwide Realty Investors agreed to pay Penn National $11 million for the original Arena District site. In a related move, the Dispatch Printing Company, Columbus C.E.O.’s parent company and a minority investor in the arena, agreed to drop its lawsuit that sought to force Penn to annex.
Now, both sides say they’ve moved on. Says Penn spokesman Bob Tenenbaum, “The relationship with the city is very positive. The city has fulfilled its pledge to help expedite the permitting process, and that’s helped keep the casino construction on schedule. What’s past is past; we’re eager to continue moving forward to create 2,000 permanent jobs and become a significant contributor to the city’s economy.”
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman spokesman Dan Williamson takes a similar stance: “I believe now that the lawsuit is settled, any disagreements from the past are irrelevant.”
Meanwhile, Weston Vision—a group of neighborhood civic and business leaders—is enthusiastic about the opportunities the casino could bring. In 2009, the area had the ignominious distinction of being named the most vacant neighborhood in the country, thanks to its 67 percent residential and 50-plus percent commercial vacancy rates.
Chris Haydocy, president of Haydocy Automotive, says the community needs to leverage the casino’s presence. With 5 million anticipated annual gaming visitors, the area is primed for retail, hotels, the redevelopment of Westland Mall and more, he says. A recent market study found the area could retain its 3,200-person employment base and attract 4,500 more jobs. “The fact of the matter is, if we do this right, it will be a huge jobs generator and also an income generator,” says Haydocy.
Ultimately, Patel says, the casino will be an agent for change as both an employer and a civic partner. “Two years from now, if people were to judge what happened and whether they were to approve, I think they’ll have a fantastic story to tell, no doubt about that,” he says.
Reprinted from the January 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.