Veteran journalist Carl Hoffman believes he’s solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. In 1961 at the age of 23, Michael Rockefeller – son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in America ¬– travelled to remote New Guinea in search of primitive art for his father’s new museum.
Casino Already Bringing Development And Hope For Future
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After court battles and a state referendum, the much-anticipated Hollywood Casino opens today on Columbus’ West Side. The people who live and work in the area are betting on the house – to bring a new vibe to the neighborhood that has, for years, been on the decline.
Three years ago the Associated Press dubbed the area surrounding what is now the Hollywood Casino “America’s Loneliest Neighborhood” because of its many empty businesses and homes.
Now the shiny new casino with its elaborate landscaping looks lonely.
If you take a drive down West Broad Street or Georgesville Road today, you still see vacant lots. Next door to the casino’s employment center is a large, empty retail store. Directly across the street is an empty shopping plaza with weeds sprouting from the concrete.
That’s just one of several blighted properties in the area.
But if you look closely, you’ll notice the changes some longtime businesses are making.
“We now have an opportunity to now reinvent ourselves and go from the loneliest neighborhood to the most vibrant, energetic and diverse neighborhood,” says Chris Haydocy, the president of Haydocy Buick-GMC. He says the West Side neighborhood faced a crossroads just few years ago.
Business after business was shutting down and leaving in 2008 [and] 2009. So, anyone who stayed is a plus. Bobby Layman (Chevrolet) across the street, they were challenged from the factory to look at some place else. But the fact is, they’ve been out here on the West Side since the ’70s and they have a $4 million renovation going on.”
And the Chevrolet dealership is one of about a dozen or so businesses, including Haydocy’s, forking out cash for renovations or rebuilds.
Around the corner on Georgesville Road, a half mile from the casino, retirees arrive for their afternoon bowling league at Columbus Western Bowl.
The facility has been undergoing a $1.5 million face lift since it changed owners in February 2011.
Bowling alley manager Amy Temple doesn’t mince words about the business’ condition when her boss, Mike Irwin, bought it.
“It was trashy.”
But now she says…
We have a fully remodeled bar. We have renovations on our concourse. We have new bowling pins placed. We’re going to have major construction going on.
Construction on a new addition, Temple says, for laser tag. The idea is to attract casino customers, especially those with children.
“We have all kinds of specials for taking care of children. Hopefully parents will go gamble and bring their kids down here to bowl for a couple of hours and we’ll watch them for them and provide entertainment for children while the adults have the entertainment down the road.”
While existing businesses are sprucing up their digs, what about new businesses?
The Ohio Secretary of State shows 123 businesses registered within the zip codes around the casino from June to August 2012. That’s a 64 percent increase from the previous year. But just registering doesn’t mean those businesses have or ever will open up their doors.
Jung Kim is research director for Columbus 2020, the regional economic development organization. Kim says the West Side is a hub for distribution, transportation and warehouse activity, and is home to several new larger companies.
But smaller business?
“That’s going to take improvement with the infrastructure, the housing stock in the area, and hopefully the additional traffic from the casino,” Kim says.
“So that will take time.”
The infrastructure along Georgesville Road has improved: widened lanes, new sidewalks. Twenty-two property owners along West Broad Street donated land to the Ohio Department of Transportation for improvements.
And more people are moving to the community. According to the Columbus Board of Realtors, home sales in the neighborhoods around the casino have increased by 20 percent since August 2011. And homes are selling for more: prices are up 16 percent.
But skeptics say gamblers will not venture to local restaurants and businesses, choosing to eat and drink inside at the casino four restaurants and bars.
The Ding Ho Chinese Restaurant, across from the casino on Phillipi Road is not deterred. The 56-year-old-West Side staple has a newly renovated exterior and new patio. The restaurant’s Stephen Yee says they are looking to draw gamblers by offering specials.
“If you bring your players card in here you get 20 percent off that’s through the month of October,” Yee says.
And they are seeing business from casino workers.
Because when customers walk in and ask a casino worker ‘where’s a good place to eat around here?’ Hopefully they’ll say us. That’s the key.
The west side can look to the north and west to see gauge casino spin-off business. Another of the state’s casinos opened in Toledo in April. Like Columbus, it’s away from the downtown area, but unlike Columbus, the Toledo casino was built in a largely undeveloped area.
Wendy Gramza is executive vice president of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce. She says restaurants are seeing some new business.
“In the casino they’ve said, ‘hey, where’s a great place to go for Mexican food that close? And where’s a good place for this or that?’
“So people are wanting to stop outside the casino on their way back to Michigan or Indiana or wherever they’ve come from. So I know just anecdotally there is a market there,” Gramza says.
Gramza says some of the businesses and infrastructure near the casino, have undergone a facelift. But new business is limited.
“I think as the credit market loosens up and the economy gets stronger that you will see more people making an investment around that area. And I think that some people have a wait and see attitude.”
Chris Haydocy remains positive that the West Side of Columbus will continue to improve.
“It’s not going to be overnight, but we are 180 degrees, facing a different direction, than we were three years ago.”