Rick A. Lertzman and Dr. Bradford Pressman grew up as childhood friends in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood. For the last 15 years, they’ve dreamed of bringing casino gambling to their home state.
 
Those dreams never envisioned a stroke of luck that was like drawing an inside card for a royal flush in poker.

As the partners began pushing for a $600 million “resort casino” near Wilmington, which they claim would include the largest gaming palace in the Midwest, they touted boosting employment in the Clinton County area.

Now the stakes are much higher. Instead of just adding jobs, people wonder if this project can replace jobs in a region facing economic devastation.

Last fall, Lertzman and Pressman revved up their casino campaign called “MyOhioNow.” In May, the parent company of DHL shocked the community, announcing it would shift North American air shipping from Wilmington’s DHL Air Park to UPS. That means 6,000 or more jobs could fly away to Louisville or elsewhere. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio says the regional impact could amount to some 30,000 people out of work.

Overnight, many Clinton County residents who might have opposed the mega-casino in their backyard are either embracing it or reconsidering. “Five-thousand jobs are 5,000 jobs” is a typical comment these days, says the Rev. Dean Feldmeyer, pastor of Wilmington United Methodist Church and casino opponent.

“The psychological impact of what’s happening here is like everybody is afraid,” observes Marcy Hawley, the publisher of Orange Frazer Press, situated on Main Street in Wilmington. Hawley, a resident there for 30 years, is seeing “For Rent” signs proliferate in direct proportion to the number of DHL pink slips issued.

One of her tenants who relocated is an upscale pet boutique, Dog Gone Good Barkery. “How much money are people going to spend on clothing for their dogs if they can’t afford to eat?” asks the shop’s owner, Marsha Hinton. Her husband, Mike, is an air cargo pilot who could lose his job.

Two of the three Clinton County commissioners now stand in favor of the casino. Commissioner David Stewart was optimistic about growing jobs in Clinton County cornfields with both DHL and casino employment.

“I spent a year researching it,” Stewart says, recalling visits to casinos to observe the gambling business. “I strongly believe it will be good for our county, creating 5,000 jobs and revenue for our county and every other county in the state.”

Stewart stresses that DHL has not ceased operations, but he’s preparing for the worst.

“It’s a tsunami for us. ‘Devastating’ would be the best word to describe it for us and the other counties in the region,” the commissioner remarks.

The self-described conservative Republican says his position is politically risky in a county where two of the largest religious denominations — Quakers and Baptists — make it clear that the road to heaven doesn’t have an interchange at the blackjack table.

“It’s about one word — jobs — and trying to mitigate the damage if DHL proceeds as planned,” Stewart admits.

ENTREPRENEURIAL GAMBLERS

Since 1990, Ohio voters have defeated constitutional amendments to permit casino gaming three times in a row. The last one, “Learn & Earn” in 2006, lost by a 57-43 percent margin. But recent surveys indicate a shift. An August poll conducted by Quinnipiac University found Ohio voters support legalizing casino gambling in general, and the Wilmington project, by almost the exact same margin: 60-35 percent.

Lertzman and Pressman, who joined in the 1996 campaign for legalized gambling, conducted demographic research and polling after that loss. Their findings? Ohioans are increasingly sensitive to being virtually surrounded by states with legalized gaming. (Kentucky is the only neighbor holding out, but Gov. Steve Beshear’s election campaign last year vowed to change that.) Lertzman says $3 billion in gambling dollars are seeping across Ohio’s borders every year, with about $800 million or more of that funneling into the three Southeast Indiana riverboat sites.

The MyOhioNow partners also found that people are fed up with gaming being marketed as a magic solution for education funding. “There’s a lot of anger around the state about that,” Lertzman says. “We don’t use euphemisms. We tell people it’s about gambling.”

They’re also trying to offset rumors about a connection to Native American casinos. Because Ohio does not have an existing reservation or tribe that’s eligible for casino licensing under existing federal and state statutes, the odds are stacked against Native American gaming there, Lertzman insists.

Research convinced Pressman and Lertzman that Ohioans are willing to vote for one major casino, and that the best site would be near an interstate freeway within the Dayton-Cincinnati-Columbus triangle.

Lertzman says he comes from a family line of commercial liquidators. Pressman, who retired as a podiatrist because of an eyesight disorder, once worked in demographic research. Now, at age 52, “We’re dreamers, entrepreneurs,” Lertzman remarks. But, to realize that dream, they needed someone “with a bigger piggybank” and a partner with casino operations experience.

PARTNER WITH THE PIGGYBANK
Enter Lyle Berman: world champion poker player, the man who transformed Berman Buckskin into Wilsons the Leather Experts and is now CEO of Lakes Entertainment Inc.

Lakes, a publicly traded corporation, owns and operates the Four Winds casino complex in New Buffalo, Mich., near the northeast Indiana border. The company plans to develop at least five other casinos in the U.S., four with Native American tribes.

Lertzman and Pressman are minority partnerswith Berman in an Ohio company called Blue Waters Joint Ventures. Lakes Entertainment would be in charge of building and operating the complex. “We’re not the operators, but we’ll have a say in what’s created,” Lertzman explains.

“This will be the biggest private investment project in Ohio in the 21st century,” Lertzman continues, saying it would be the third-largest casino complex in the country. The partners predict creation of 5,000 jobs averaging $34,000 annually plus benefits, not counting construction work.

Along with one or more hotels, restaurants, retail shops and more, the developers say this project is much more than slot machines and blackjack tables. “Resort casinos draw tourism and bring Ohio dollars back to Ohio,” Lertzman says, predicting an economic “ripple effect” along I-71 reaching to Kings Island. And, he adds, aside from the new gaming tax, the hotel and other operations will generate additional local and state tax revenue.

The two men behind MyOhioNow had “no inkling” that DHL might pull out of Wilmington Air Park, Lertzman says. They did expect community opposition. They also concluded that because most politicians steer clear of taking a stand on legalized gambling — “let the voters decide” is their usual refrain — MyOhioNow would take its case directly to the people.

Their strategy of divvying up the tax take among Ohio counties has proved attractive. Lertzman notes that Issue 6 supporters now include Hamilton County Commissioners David Pepper and Todd Portune, and county Sheriff Simon Leis Jr.

THE MORAL FABRIC
Gambling opponents, including many clergy, aren’t buying into those arguments.

“Pilots who are making $185,000 a year (for DHL) aren’t going to be dealing blackjack in a casino,” counters the Rev. Kelly D. McInerney, pastor of the largest church in the county, the 1,000-member Bible Baptist Church of Wilmington. Fifty members of his congregation will lose their jobs once DHL shuts down, he notes.

“Wilmington is a divided community. It was peaceful, happy, tranquil, and now these two issues have really poisoned the water.”

McInerney opposed the gaming proposal from day one. Last year, he led a petition drive that gathered 3,000 signatures of opponents. He says his position is based on caring about his community and secular statistics about gambling, not just religious beliefs.

Studies show that bankruptcies, home foreclosures and gambling addiction skyrocket in communities where casinos operate, he says, calling legalized gambling a “cannibalizing industry” that can “change the moral fabric of a community.”

“If it was wrong before the DHL announcement, it’s still wrong,” the clergyman insists.

Rev. Feldmeyer publicly blasted DHL — and he doesn’t trust pledges from the casino proponents, either. “Generally speaking, what the (casino) developers want to bring in rides on deceptions, half-truths and lies,” Feldmeyer charges.

As for the casino spurring a boom in community development, Feldmeyer is skeptical. Similar predictions were made when DHL acquired Airborne Express and moved operations from Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport to the Wilmington Air Park, he recalls. “We were told there would be this huge explosion of growth here. None of it happened.”

The Methodist Church’s theology on gambling is unambiguous: “It’s inherently evil,” Feldmeyer points out. But his congregation is divided. “Some of them say ‘In principle, we’re opposed, but sometimes you have to forget about principles and do the right thing,’” Feldmeyer remarks, chuckling at the irony of that statement. “I tell them this (casino) is not the messiah any more than DHL was the messiah.”

Feldmeyer notes he has no personal animosity toward reasonable, recreational gambling in moderation. “But the people of Clinton County do not need this in their backyard.”

WAGERING ON VICTORY
Issue 6 appears to be on track for voters to decide. MyOhioNow needed 402,235 petition signatures statewide to get the constitutional amendment on the November ballot, and turned in 826,000.

Marcy Hawley says it’s difficult to predict how Clinton County will vote. “I asked the little girl at the checkout counter at the grocery, ‘What do you think about the casino?’ and she goes, ‘Oh, man, I hear they pay 15 dollars an hour. I’d leave here in a heartbeat and go to work for them.’”

Hawley is concerned about people who have trouble controlling their wagering. “We already have drugs and alcohol,” she comments. “Do we add another addiction to that?”

Daniel A. DiBiasio, president of Wilmington College, declines being drawn into the casino debate. He says his energy is focused on the task force that is trying to deal with the DHL situation, which he calls “ill-timed, ill-conceived and possibly illegal.”

If DHL does depart, DiBiasio says, the emphasis should shift to retraining unemployed workers and attracting new business to the Wilmington airport.

Rick Lertzman points out that 38 states have casinos. “It’s an economic issue, not a moral issue,” he says, and claims it’s untrue that casinos lead to more community crime. “If there are ill effects to gambling, Cincinnati has all of the ill effects and none of the positive benefits.”

Lertzman expects the final vote to be close, and anticipates casinos in neighboring states will coordinate a negative media campaign. “Ohioans will be paying for ads that are against Ohio,” he predicts.


Gov. Strickland: No to Casino

In his first public statement on Issue 4, Gov. Ted Strickland made no bones about his stand on the Wilmington casino.

“I am opposed to expanded gambling in Ohio and I oppose this proposed constitutional amendment,” the governor told Cincy in response to questions communicated through his press secretary.

The governor pointed to other efforts to offset the potential DHL job losses. “We are working to create tens of thousands of new Ohio jobs through a $1.57 billion job stimulus plan,” he continued. “Our plan invests in four industries that are growing sectors of the economy — biomedicine, advanced energy, logistics, and bio-based products — and lays the foundation for a more prosperous future. I believe that our ongoing efforts to cultivate the talents of Ohio’s workforce through improved access to education and skill development, and our investments in growth sectors, are the keys to create and attract new jobs and new economic opportunities in Ohio.”

Strickland pushed this year for the addition of Keno machines at licensed establishments around the state, which some observers say is a closer step to legalized slot machines. The governor disagrees.

“I do not consider this new Ohio Lottery game to be an expansion of gambling because the Ohio Lottery was approved by the voters as a constitutional amendment, while the people of Ohio have clearly indicated their opposition to casino gambling time and again,” he explained. “The lottery is under the control and regulation of the state, not private gambling interests. The lottery has traditionally offered new games, and lottery profits are required by law to be spent on education. I respect the right of others to have a differing opinion, but I believe that the lottery and casino gambling are substantively different.”



Counties Eye Casino Payouts
The proposed State Issue 6 says proceeds from a state tax on the casino’s gaming “are to be used first to pay expenses of regulating and collecting taxes from the casino, then for funding of gambling prevention and treatment programs, and the remainder to be distributed in the amount of 10 percent to Clinton County and 90 percent to the remaining counties based on population and to be used at each county’s discretion.”

The casino developers say based on revenue produced by the three gambling riverboats in Southeast Indiana, their casino is expected to generate $800 million annually in gross gaming revenue. At a gaming tax rate of 30 percent, this would generate $240 million in tax revenue per year. “Programs for the treatment of problem gamblers will receive 1 percent or $2.4 million. Administrative costs required to regulate the casino will receive 1 percent or $2.4 million,” according to MyOhioNow.

The estimated county allocations:
Greater Cincinnati
Butler: $6,185,274
Clermont: $ 3,307,732
Hamilton: $15,710,097
Warren: $ 2,943,574
Other Counties
Clinton (Wilmington): $ 753,498*
Cuyahoga (Cleveland): $25,907,314
Franklin (Columbus): $19,867,134
Montgomery (Dayton): $10,390,260
Summit (Akron): $10,089,868
Lucas (Toldeo): $8,457,254

* Aside from these county allocations, Clinton County would receive 10 percent of wagering taxes to fund increased safety forces, infrastructure and other improvements. Casino proponents estimate this will amount to $24 million annually.



The $600 Million Pitch

Ohio Issue 6 would amend the state constitution to “Authorize one privately owned casino with a minimum initial investment of $600 million on a 94-acre site located near the northwest corner of State Route 73 and Interstate 71 in southwest Ohio in Chester Township near Wilmington, Clinton County, Ohio.”

The site is just west of Wilmington, south of Caesar Creek State Park and 20 miles northeast of Kings Island. According to the developing partners, the project would include:

• Casino of 180,000 to 220,000 square feet with approximately 5,000 slot machines, 150 table games (blackjack, roulette, craps, etc.) and a 20-table poker room
• Luxury hotel with approximately 1,500 rooms
• Variety of restaurants
• Championship golf course and shooting sports course
• 2,500 seat multi-use entertainment center
• Specialty retail space (8,000 to 10,000 square feet)
• Full-service destination spa
• Conference center
• Covered parking garage, child day-care center and arcade

MyOhioNow refers to this as “Ohio Casino and Resort Phase One.” Future plans call for expansion of a second hotel and additional space for casino gaming, retail and restaurants.