Sunday, October 22, 2000

Giving it a roll

Belterra ready for debut, but can area handle another casino?

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] The new Belterra Casino & Resort in Vevay, Ind., stands out in an area better known for tobacco farming than riverboat gambling.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        FLORENCE, Ind. — If you're still looking to drop your fifty bucks at a riverboat casino, there's now another option at your disposal.

        And it's not hard to spot. Rising from the Hoosier farmland and visible from three miles away, the Belterra Casino & Resort in Switzerland County is the latest broadside from an industry that already is the biggest single attraction in Greater Cincinnati and shows no signs of slowing down.

        Belterra, which means “beautiful land” in Portuguese, will host a “test day” with the Indiana Gaming Commission Monday, and should open to the public late next week. It is controlled by California-based Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., along with private investors in Indianapolis.

        The opening ends a two-month delay after the Miss Belterra riverboat collided with a barge on the Mississippi River.

   The average casino customer is married, a registered voter, and goes to the casino with a spouse or friends. They have a slightly larger household income than the U.S. population as a whole.
    And there are plenty of them.
    According to a new survey from the American Gaming Association, casino visits nationally have more than doubled since 1993 to about 162 million in 1999.
    But there is room for plenty of growth. Money spent at casinos is still far behind restaurant meals and trails even sporting goods and golf, the survey showed.
    The new Belterra Casino & Resort in Switzerland County will be Indiana's 10th floating casino, and the owners of the first nine have collected $1.5 billion in gross gaming revenue since the first opened in late 1995.
    Casino operators here said many of their customers are retirees, often on organized tours from cities around the region. That mirrors the trend nationally, according to the gaming association survey.
    A new medical clinic, new roads, a new jail and a new courthouse are only some of the benefits coming to Switzerland County as a result of the new Belterra Casino & Resort in Florence, Ind.
    The boat is expected to pay taxes totaling about $1.1 million per month to Switzerland County, compared to the current annual operating budget of about $1.6 million, said Jim Allison, president of the county commission.
    “A lot of it's going to go into roads,” he said.
    Some of the money will go to neighboring counties, including $1 million a year to Jefferson County, $1 million a year to Crawford County and $500,000 a year to Ripley County. Belterra will contribute some of those dollars directly.
    The money comes from the $3 admission tax on each ticket, even though Belterra is not charging admission. That money goes to the state, and about $2 of each admission comes back to Switzerland County, Mr. Allison said.
    It also includes gambling taxes, determined by a complex state formula.
    Belterra already has contributed $1.2 million up front to pay for the new medical clinic on the west side of nearby Vevay. Construction should start any day.
   When its full schedule of riverboat gambling starts, the Miss Belterra riverboat will operate nine gambling sessions per day.
    The cruises will run for about 90 minutes. They start at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 10 p.m., midnight and 2 a.m. daily.
    Boarding starts 30 minutes before the cruise departs. On Friday and Saturday nights, the 2 a.m. cruise will be extended for one hour.
    There is no admission charge for tickets to the cruises.
    To get to Belterra Casino & Resort, follow Interstate 71 south in Kentucky to the Sparta/Warsaw exit. Turn right on Ky. 35 into Warsaw, then turn left on Ky. 42 at the traffic light.
    Follow to the Markland Dam over the Ohio River. On the Indiana side, turn right on Ind. 156 and go one mile to the Belterra entrance.
        Like their competitors in Lawrenceburg and Rising Sun, operators at Belterra insist the gaming market in Greater Cincinnati is growing more than 15 percent a year. Last year, the two operating casinos attracted more than 10 million visits, with patrons losing an average of $49 per visit.

        “There's plenty of people that don't go out on Saturday night, our busiest night, because they don't like the crowds,” said Larry Buck, general manager at Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, which opened five years ago.

        “If there's another boat, it might be less crowded. I expect to absorb that growth within a year, 18 months.”

        With a 308-room hotel (and televisions in every bathroom), several restaurants, a 1,500-seat showroom and a golf course under construction, the sprawling $200 million Belterra complex is every bit as elaborate as its competitors.

        Customers in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana clearly love the image of opulence and big spending. Belterra General Manager John Spina hopes they will spend a weekend in the hotel and take advantage of concerts and food.

        He said the showroom will host acts including the Doobie Brothers and Alabama.

        “It's a total experience,” he said. “We can make this a day or a week, and people will always have something to do. You don't even have to gamble.”

        But clearly, the customers are coming to gamble. Earl Van Winkle, town council president in nearby Vevay, said he has visited the other area casinos and will be a frequent visitor at Belterra.

        “What draws people back more than once, of course, is the gambling,” Mr. Van Winkle said. “But this is a resort. I think we're going to have a world-class hotel here, and a world-class operation.”

        Experts said that explains why the new casino will barely slow the growth in what already is a huge industry here.

        “It's a relatively young market,” Mr. Spina said. “As you open more capacity and people become more familiar with the product, it just increases.”

        At Argosy Casino, the leader with more than 7 million visits last year, nearly all of the customers come from Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana. About 40 percent of the members in Argosy's Players Club are from Greater Cincinnati.

        The remainder are divided nearly equally between Columbus and Indianapolis, said Gary Johnson, director of marketing at Argosy.

        “We look for some of our regulars to go down and try Belterra, but we think they'll be back,” Mr. Johnson said.

        “The financial people think there's still growth in this market. Until a market reaches its saturation point, and I don't think we're there, opening a new casino should just make the market grow.”

        Belterra is in a far more rural location than either Grand Victoria or Argosy. Nestled about halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville in idyllic Switzerland County, it is the only large building visible for miles.

        The casino's one obvious advantage is its proximity to the Kentucky Speedway in nearby Sparta. Belterra sponsored a race at the speedway this season, and is counting on it for hordes of customers on race weekends.

        That should only improve after a four-lane road from the speedway directly to the Markland Dam is built, Mr. Spina of Belterra said.

        But Mr. Buck of Grand Victoria said Belterra's remote location still is a disadvantage.

        “If you asked me whether I would rather be near the Kentucky Speedway or close to the city of Cincinnati, the decision is clear,” he said.

        Judy Hess, a spokeswoman at the Caesars-owned Glory of Rome casino in Harrison County near Louisville, said some customers might try Belterra, but eventually would find their way back to Caesars.

        The Louisville-area casino has nearly finished its hotel, which should put it on an equal footing with the Greater Cincinnati properties, she said.

        “Competition in this industry is what you expect,” she said.

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