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Erie Casino Luring Ohio Gamblers

Friday, March 23, 2007 at 9:03 AM

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There were predictions that when Presque Isle Downs & Casino opened just outside Erie, Pennsylvania, Ohio gamblers would flock there and spend millions of dollars in the process. Well, the casino did open last month and the owners claim 25% of their patrons are from Ohio, and these traveling gamblers certainly are contributing to Erie's economy - especially the retired set. ideastream's David C. Barnett went along on a casino run and filed this report.

There’s a faint orange glow on the eastern horizon as a chatty group of passengers boards Lakefront Lines Bus #2 in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Independence. Joanne Wallace and her buddy Barbara Harris are excited about the charter bus run they are about to make across the Pennsylvania state line to check out the brand new Presque Isle Downs - and test her luck in a sea of 2,000 slot machines. They just wish they could do it closer to home.

Barbara Harris: We’ve got people in power who just don’t want gambling.
Joanne Wallace: A lot of money is leaving Ohio every day.

Just how much money is hard to say, but you can draw some conclusions from the Lakefront Lines schedule. This is one of three coaches that are running to Erie this morning. Each bus is filled, and could soon supply a big boost to casino patronage because most of these riders are with organizations that are considering booking trips of their own trip to Presque Isle.

Barbara Harris: The Committee of Retired Delta Sigma Sorority sisters.
Edna: Selrec Seniors from South Euclid and Lyndhurst.
Carolyn Novak: Newburgh Heights Homemakers and the St. John Nepomucene Seniors.

Each group will be able to pretty much guarantee a full bus.

Carolyn Novak: Between 45 to 52 people.
Edna: Usually about 50.
Barbara Harris: The last time we went up, we had two buses.

Today, is the second of three so-called “Familiarity Runs” that Lakefront is making to Erie this month. Not every single one of these potential travelers is interested in gambling. Presque Isle has long been home to a popular state park, and Erie boasts a couple of lakefront museums. But, Carolyn Novak of the Newburgh Heights Senior group says the slots are the big draw.

Carolyn Novak: It’s easier to fill a gambling trip than a non-gambling trip. And anytime there’s a new casino, they all want to go there.

As they enter, the casinos give the Northeast Ohio visitors $5 credit to get them going. Most quickly start spending their own money once they get the rush from shaking hands with the one-armed bandits.

Virgil Lengel, your affable host on a trip to the casinos.

Lakefront Lines Sales Manager Virgil Lengel sips a plastic cup of iced tea in the Presque Isle Downs cafeteria, staring through a large plate-glass wall at the future. A snow-covered field is due to become a thoroughbred racetrack, come September. Slot machine revenue will allow the track to offer fatter purses than any track in Ohio - and maybe bigger crowds.

Virgil Lengel: When Pennsylvania voted in gaming, we were asked when is it going to open - when is Erie going to open - when is it going to open? The phone was ringing off the hook.

The casino and race track were sold in Erie as an economic development engine, but not everyone bought the argument. Former City Solicitor Paul Curry says the Presque Isle Downs money machine isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Paul Curry: You know, there’s this siren song of more jobs, and you get a community like Erie that gets all sucked into that.

Curry was one of the most vocal opponents of Presque Isle Downs before it was built, and remains critical of certain subsidies that the city gave to the owners - MTR Gaming Group, Incorporated. He says the previous city administration polled mayors in other communities that already had casinos.

Paul Curry: The response was remarkably similar. Once these places came in, they saw that the real economic development wasn’t what was promised. And let’s face it. These outfits, they’re there to make money. And most of them aren’t going to be plowing it back into the community. Their owners aren’t in the community.

Erie Convention and Visitor’s Bureau chief Emily Beck says there was a struggle to secure a casino for the city, but she’s upbeat about the potential for Presque Isle Downs.

Emily Beck: You’re always going to have the negatives and the positives. We got the go-ahead and we’re happy to be a part of it and we’re marketing it now. The first week it was operating, there was betting up to $57 million.

And Presque Isle has hired 650 people for the casino and restaurants. It plans to hire up to 300 more for the racetrack. Ohio voters, though, have repeatedly defeated moves to expand gambling, most recently in last fall’s elections. Concerns over addiction, crime and congestion as well as moral objections and skepticism about economic benefits all worked against casino advocates. Arguments that don’t carry much weight with the day-trippers to Presque Isle.

The skies are darkening as Lakefront Lines Bus #2 arrives back at the Independence Holiday Inn parking lot. The travelers seem upbeat about the long day’s journey. As she walks to her car, Barbara Harris says she thinks the retired teachers and business people in her sorority will enjoy the bus trip to the Erie casino. It’s something different. Something they can’t do in Ohio.

Barbara Harris: We have a varied audience. Some like to do casinos only, some like go to plays. A lot of our people like to gamble, so we do it. We’re retired Deltas, and we enjoy.

David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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