Issue 3′s Passage Would Bring Casino to Columbus’ Arena District

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If voters approve Issue 3, Columbus might see a casino in the arena district, one of the city’s main tourist destinations.

The brick sidewalks in the arena district are busy with people dining at the area’s many restaurants and upscale bars. Nationwide Arena, the centerpiece of the district, is home to the Columbus Blue Jackets and hosts many big-name concerts.

But just a few blocks away at the end of Nationwide Blvd., hidden behind the new Huntington Park baseball stadium, sits an old, dilapidated building waiting to be demolished. It’s here that a developer wants to construct a casino if voters approve a ballot measure on November 3rd

There’s no doubt that a casino in Columbus would add another entertainment option to the arena district. It’s what Paul Astleford, the president of Experience Columbus, calls destination appeal.

“Tourists are interested in that kind of diversity,” Astleford says. “They’re looking for everything: great restaurants, they’re looking for things to do with the family they’re looking to have some nightlife so casinos offer an appeal that might not be here for some people who are coming to a destination like ours.”

But to some Ohioans, casino is a word that’s associated with a host of negatives: crime; addiction; paychecks being gambled away.

To Nationwide Insurance – the major arena district developer – it’s a bad business deal. Eric Hardgrove speaks for Nationwide:

“We’ve opposed past initiatives, and we’re opposed to this one,” Hardgrove says. “And the main reason is Nationwide does not see this proposal or other proposals as sound business decisions for the local community here in Columbus or the state as a whole.”

Most restaurant owners or managers in the arena district declined to discuss the matter. But Stewart Miller of Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant did.

“I think I have to look at both sides and see what the takes are on both sides and listen to see the pros and cons of it,” Miller says. “First off, I think more traffic is better but is it actually good traffic?”

23 year-old Rene Stowronski thinks a Columbus casino is a good idea.

“I think it would actually give us an economic boost,” she says. “And actually help our economy get better and grow and bring people here and just actually make the arena district more fun as well.”

It’s difficult to find a casino that has opened in an already successful downtown area. Many casinos are located away from the city’s core, on a riverboat or in downtowns, like Detroit’s, which were struggling.

But in Pittsburgh, the new Rivers Casino opened downtown in early August. It’s surrounded by dozens of restaurants in an area that includes the Steelers’ Heinz Field and PNC baseball Park. But the casino has four restaurants within it walls. Michael Edwards heads the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership

“Certainly the casino, like all casinos, are designed to keep people at the machines and inside the facility,” Edwards says. “The restaurants and the atmosphere is all very high-end, very modern, very compelling.”

Though the Pittsburgh casino has only been open two months it’s bound to have an impact on surrounding restaurants says the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association’s Jeff Cohen.

“Any time that you add new restaurants within the same vicinity you’re going to lose business,” Cohen says. “They ran some special – in the month of September — a two-for-one special for their buffet which I’m sure brought some people in. So I mean it always affects it. I mean they told us originally that when they were going to run the casino that they would not use food as an enticement to come down.”

Several restaurant owners near the Rivers in Pittsburgh say the casino has not affected their businesses. A few, though, say that business has actually picked up. 80-year-old George Wilson has run Wilson’s Barbecue since 1960.

“It has been very effective for us because we have gained some customers that normally would not have been for the casino,” Wilson says.

Q: So you think you have more customers as a result of the casino?

“Oh definitely. Certainly. Yeah. We’re within pretty well walking distance of the casino so you see we ain’t doing too bad,” Wilson says.

Certainly Pittsburgh business and government leaders will watch closely the casino’s impact on the local economy.

Here in Ohio, this state’s voters have a few weeks to decide if the casino gamble will be worth it.

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