Horseshoe casinos in Ohio offer glimpse of Baltimore's future

Chad Barnhill, the general manager of the Horseshoe Casino that will be constructed along Russell Street, is in Cincinnati today to observe a sort of soft opening (the Cincinnati newspaper is live blogging the event) for the Horseshoe Casino there that will open its doors Monday.

Though Barnhill knows the Horseshoe brand well, having served as general manager for the one located in the City of Bossier City (which is the official name, according to the website which lists among its top news items the fact that the city pool is accepting applications to be a lifeguard this summer), he'll use today to figure out how the launch of a casino in Baltimore might go. Caesars Entertainment, which bought the Horseshoe brand because of its rustic-but-elegant feeling and strong ties to the poker movement, has opened two urban Horseshoe casinos in Ohio (the other is in Cleveland) and will inevitably use lessons learned there as it moves forward here.

But using the Horseshoe casinos in Ohio -- another state new to gambling, all things considered -- presents only the blurry outline of what's going to happen in Baltimore. Here's Thomas Ott, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, describing the two properties:

Inside and out, the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati stands in sharp contrast to the Horseshoe in Cleveland.

Rock Ohio Caesars, the joint venture that owns both of the casinos, allowed reporters, photographers and videographers to tour the Cincinnati casino today. The Horseshoe will stage a test run Wednesday and open March 4, rounding out a set of four casinos allowed by the Ohio Constitution.

The Cleveland and Cincinnati casinos are both downtown and are comparable in the size of gaming space and numbers of slot machines and gaming tables. But after that, the physical similarities are few.

Cleveland's Horseshoe is in the heart of downtown, while Cincinnati's is at the edge, bordering the arts-oriented Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

The Cleveland casino was retrofitted snugly into a restored former department store, with gaming spread over three stories; Cincinnati's was built new on a former parking lot, allowing gaming to be kept on a spacious single floor. Cleveland will get new construction if Rock Ohio proceeds with a promised expansion.

The $400 million Cincinnati casino is modern and angular on the outside. And unlike the insular Cleveland venue, it has windows that give the public a look inside.

Here's what we know so far about the Horseshoe Baltimore: it will be much more like Cincinnati. The cost is the same. It is new construction, and plans call for a modern and angular design (although, like Cleveland, it is constrained because of the shape of the lot, which is one city block). And it will sit on the edge of the city, though developers hope it will create a connection to nearby M&T Bank Stadium and revitalize the entire area.

Barnhill revealed yesterday that he had secured an agreement to have a "celebrity chef" take one of the Baltimore facilities restaurant spots, but did not say who it would be. By saying that the chef had recently "visited" Baltimore, he revealed it is not a well-known local chef. Cleveland's casino, which features only a small area for food stands, is heavily tilted toward local flavors. Cincinnati features a couple of chains -- Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and Bobby's Burger Palace (named for Bobby Flay, who's already built one of these at Maryland Live) -- and three restaurants that have either casino branding (Jack Binion's Steak House is named for the original proprietor of Horseshoe) or bland branding (Spread Buffet and Cafe Italia.)

In previous conversations, Barnhill said he hoped to have a mix of local and national flavor. Maryland Live, of course, features a second location of the legendary Baltimore restaurant Prime Rib as well as a Phillips Seafood in addition to a Cheesecake Factory.

One thing I do think we can learn, with some certainty, from Ohio is that the inside of the Horseshoe will be quite subdued compared with most casinos (meaning it is still 100 times more garish than, say, what your dorm room looked like ... if you went to college in the '70s), relying on dark brown wood, rich marble and gold accents.

The Cincinnati Enquirer has this robust photo gallery to give you a sense of the what the casino looks like, as well as this feed of instant reactions staff members compiled while touring the building.

Barnhill said yesterday that he'd have drawings of what Baltimore's facility will look like in the near future. It likely won't vary much from what you see in those links.

There are some major differences in the gaming business here and in Ohio. Racetracks are allowed to have slots in Ohio, and the four casinos are split between two companies (Penn National has the other two, in Columbus and Toledo). But Ohio opted to legalize gaming for the same reason as Maryland: to prevent money from leaving the state when residents flocked to Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to gamble in casinos there.

Some of the evolution of Ohio's casinos matches what's happening in Maryland: In both states, casinos have asked to return slot machines to make more room for in-demand table games. It's worth watching what happens there in the years to come as Maryland's gaming business evolves.

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