As the $400 million Horseshoe Cincinnati rises along Reading Road and Broadway, the structure "” and those involved with it "” are building a new definition of what it means to be a "truly urban" casino.

"We see the casino woven into the fabric of the city," says general manager Kevin Kline.

It's about connecting the casino to the community's businesses, Kline says. "What we are trying to do is extend the relationship beyond the walls of the casino."

Casino developer Rock Ohio Caesars LLC and Kline, along with dozens of municipal, community and business leaders view Horseshoe as a catalyst.

They say the investment can drive a transformation of Cincinnati into a world-class city with a 24/7 environment by connecting the expected six million annual casino visitors to everything else Cincinnati has to offer: unique neighborhoods like Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine (and the shops and restaurants that reside there), Fountain Square, the historic Music Hall, and the sports and entertainment options on the Ohio riverfront.

To that end, the casino's "inside-out" design, with outward facing restaurants and retail, and an outdoor, public performance plaza, is a first for the industry.

Welcome to the urban laboratory that is Cincinnati.

THE INVESTMENTS

To prepare for Horseshoe's 2013 opening, more than $26 million in infrastructure improvements are under way, from remaking the city's east entrance on Reading Road, to streetscape and lighting improvements on Court and Pendleton streets.

Entrepreneurs are scouting sites for new restaurants and stores.

Developers are remodeling abandoned buildings in Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton into new housing stock.

This experiment in urban revitalization won't work unless all stakeholders take part.

"It only works if other businesses and entrepreneurs also create and invest, and take a risk on this area," says Jennifer Kulczycki, Rock Gaming communications director.

The casino wouldn't even be happening if downtown hadn't already made so many improvements, says David Ginsberg, president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

"From The Banks to Fountain Square to the expanded library and convention center to Music Hall and Washington Park, being downtown is a far more appealing proposition than it was 10 or 15 years ago," Ginsberg says.

INSIDE OUT

Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati will set a new standard for downtown casinos.

It is not the typical boxed-in structure designed to keep visitors inside the casino as long as possible. Horseshoe will offer visitors its restaurants and retail without ever setting foot on the casino floor.

And there will be many connections "” physical and visual "” to the city.

That's key to the tremendous support Horseshoe is receiving, says Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

Horseshoe will feature outward facing restaurants with windows. A 1-acre plaza of landscaped greenspace at the casino's main entrance will create a natural connection with downtown and nearby neighborhoods. Under design by a well-known landscape architect (whose identity Kline is keeping under wraps), the space faces downtown and is bordered by Eggleston and Broadway behind the Hamilton County Justice Center. This is the casino's front door. It will be a public lawn for performances and community-oriented events.

Turning the casino inside out will also strengthen Horseshoe, says Kline.

He most recently managed the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind. Previously, he worked at the Harrah's casino in downtown New Orleans. "Here in Cincinnati things are geographically farther apart," Kline says. "But there is a lot of economic development going on at the same time that is attractive."

That makes the topic of moving people around very important.

THE TRANSPORTATION

Casino stakeholders are scrutinizing the region's transportation network, from the airport to taxi cabs to the streetcar and pedestrian traffic.

Horseshoe made a commitment to wait five years before building a hotel. That "almost forced the transportation issues," says Brian Tiffany, president of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.

Upgrades to the city's taxicab service are already underway.

Councilman Wendell Young is leading a task force to better regulate and improve the safety of cab drivers and users, with many changes expected before the World Choir Games in July.

Early recommendations include standardized signage in all cabs and creating a consistent fare schedule. A full plan was to be presented to council at the end of March.

"A taxi cab ride is more than just a ride," Young says. "It is an experience."

That experience is colored by the treatment or lack of treatment visitors get from the cab driver, Young says. "If it's positive, that translates into a good impression of the city." Also, the role of the streetcar can't be understated, Qualls says.

"As a way to circulate people around downtown and connect all of those things through the streetcar will just amplify the power of what we have invested," he says.

Kline says he is encouraged by the community's efforts to think collectively about all of the projects under development in and around downtown.

Kline sees redeveloping the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport "as an opportunity and a challenge for the region. He sees the airport as an accelerator, especially as it expands flights and fares.

Airlines at CVG offer passengers more non-stop flights than any other airport in the region, says Meghan Glynn, vice president for external affairs. "Still, we know there is a demand for more," she says. "We are fortunate to have supporters in both states helping us in this effort."

THE NEIGHBORHOODS

Changes and improvements are already quite noticeable for Pendleton neighborhood council president David White. He rattles off a list of road improvements, including Reading Road, 12th and Pendleton streets, Gilbert Avenue.

"That alone is such a big bonus, not only for us but for the approach to downtown from the east side, which carries thousands of cars a day," White says.

Not to mention that, come 2013, residents will no longer be looking out over a "nasty old parking lot."

Jim Verdin, who owns the Verdin Bell Co. and the Bell Event Center on Pendleton Street, sees the Pendleton Art Center as a big asset for casino visitors who want to see something else when in Cincinnati.

"What the casino will do just by the mere fact of being here is generate additional police protection and safety in the neighborhood. That's what most in Over-the-Rhine are looking for and if that comes true, it will be a success."

Many vacant buildings are being redeveloped into single-family homes and apartments.

Model Group Principal Bobby Maley is glad the casino is coming, but he's not making business decisions based on it. Model Group owns numerous properties on 12th and Pendleton streets, designed as street-level retail with housing above. Maley says the Pendleton holdings were under contract before the casino was announced.

Pendleton borders the central business district and is a likely place for at least some of the 1,700 casino employees to live. If even a small number joined Pendelton's existing 1,100 residents, it would be a huge boost, Maley says.

"Any time you have the opportunity for new residents and stake holders, that is the holy grail of revitalization," Maley says.

What worries him is that people are overestimating the impact of the casino.

"I don't think it will have this transformational impact on all of downtown."

THE BUSINESSES

The casino is most definitely driving interest among entrepreneurs who want to stake a claim on ancillary business, says Tiffany, from the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.

The hope is that the casino and the streetcar will be huge development engines for the area's evolving districts.

"A lot of folks seemed to be sitting on the sidelines over the last few years, and once the casino became a reality there has really been an incredible amount of interest, specifically in unique retail, restaurants and pubs," Tiffany says.

In the past six years, Over-the-Rhine has added 70 new businesses and about 370 new jobs, with half those employees living in the neighborhood, he says.

Downtown Cincinnati Inc. also receives several calls a week from business owners interested in taking advantage of the traffic the casino will generate, Ginsburg says. Just before his interview for this story, he spoke with a "very fine restaurant operator" interested in opening a spot in the city's north end, primarily to take advantage of casino goers.

"I have conversations like that on a weekly basis with people who want to make sure they are networked in with the casino," Ginsberg says. "I think it is something that's catalytic already."

Joe's Diner on Sycamore Street is reaping the benefits now. Owner Julian Rodgers says Kline often eats breakfast at the diner, and he hopes to serve casino employees once Horseshoe opens.

In the meantime, he is working with Kline to bring a Joe's Diner food truck to the construction site, to serve workers who don't have enough time to leave for lunch.

"Six months after we opened, I heard about the casino and to me it seemed we were at the right place at the right time," Rodgers says.

In anticipation of even more new companies wanting to locate in Over-the-Rhine as the casino gets closer to opening, Tiffany says, landlords and city officials are creating a comprehensive database to market existing space online. "What we hope to see is that small businesses and small entrepreneurs can capitalize on the amount of foot traffic of six million visitors expected annually," Qualls says.

Even if just 10 percent walk around downtown and in close neighborhoods, that's 600,000 people who weren't there before.

"It offers an opportunity in those areas for individuals and small businesses to look at the market and meet market demand," Qualls says.

At the same time, city and county officials and other casino stakeholders are "very aware of businesses we do not want," he says. "It's not about dictating what should be there, but controlling what should not be there."

THE CONNECTIONS


Horseshoe Cincinnati's leadership team is putting great effort in being proactive and planning for pedestrian "wayfinding," transportation, parking and attracting larger conventions to the city, sources say.

Kline puts his money where his mouth is.

He is meeting with everyone imaginable, from city and county leaders to hotel and restaurant owners. He joined the board of the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau and took a walking tour of the Pendleton neighborhood to better understand its history and issues. He made a presentation at the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP to more than 500 people interested in working at the casino.

Kline says he sees great potential in Cincinnati, and his priority is working with partners to figure out "how we master plan the experience for Cincinnati."

Dan Lincoln, Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau President, says Kline has worked hard to develop the casino as a good neighbor.

"They are developing this in a way that complements and builds critical mass in downtown and in that Pendleton district as opposed to sucking business from elsewhere," Lincoln says. "That is hugely different from other casinos in any other city I know of."

The approach is one that will help the city and all of its assets "” including the casino "” to build business and the critical mass needed to fuel the hoped-for Cincinnati Renaissance.

Horseshoe's location couldn't be better, Lincoln says. It's not right on Fountain Square, so those who want to avoid the casino can come to Cincinnati and never be exposed to it.

"But if you are interested in it, it is a purposeful walk from the city core or a very short cab ride," Lincoln says. "It's very easy, if you are a conventioneer, to be at the casino within a minute or two."

And if you are a casino goer and you want to check out the jewels in the Queen City's crown, there will be many windows of opportunity just outside the casino walls.

The landscaped plaza, pedestrian walkways, streetscaping and additional lighting are some examples. Art installations of murals and other works can be used "to connect the dots between downtown attractions," Tiffany says.

THE FUTURE

With the casino's opening still a year away, many stakeholders already are looking at what that means for Cincinnati.

"We've got CEOs like Rock Gaming's Dan Gilbert and Caesar's Gary Loveman that have a $400 million plus investment in the city," says Chip Gerhardt, president and founder of Government Strategies Group LLC. "That's good for us as a community."

To find out just how bright the future might be, Tiffany took his first trip to Las Vegas in February. "I'm not a gambler, but I wanted to go out and see it," he says. "It's pretty amazing. You ask yourself, "¢What recession?'"

The point? Even if one doesn't gamble, there are so many other things that casinos offer.

"There is a huge segment of the population that enjoys this type of recreation," Tiffany says.

"To bring six million people here that will have to walk around between different hotels and the different areas of the city holds so much potential."

Compared to peer cities, Cincinnati is doing pretty well, Gerhardt says.

The Banks development is coming out of the ground. The Great American Tower is up "and gorgeous." The casino is under construction. Employers like Dunnhumby are planning big expansions and building new headquarters.

Is Cincinnati starting to see the rewards of its hard work?

"There is wisdom in the notion that there is no silver bullet," says DCI's Ginsburg. "You can't do the casino and say downtown is fixed. You can't get the streetcar and say we're done with transportation."

Cincinnati has to do all of those things, and get people living downtown and have enough police and ambassadors for the city.

"We all have our role to play," Ginsburg says.

"If this is a perfect storm, then it is a testament to the fact that we are doing a lot of things at the same time and doing them well." - 




Who is at The Table?


Chip Gerhardt
In early 2009, Penn National Gaming asked Chip Gerhardt, founder of the government relations firm Government Strategies, to help find a location. On this try for a ballot issue, they wanted four specific sites identified across the state and under contract. So, if there was a win, development could begin quickly. Gerhardt's mission: Identify every 20-acre site within the I-275 beltway.

What ensued "was a mad dash," Gerhardt says, and "one of the most exciting things I've been involved with professionally."

"When I got the call we had three to four weeks to get options in order to include them in the ballot language," Gerhardt says.

They ultimately focused on Coney Island, The Banks, the western Ohio Riverfront, the former Showcase Cinemas site on the Norwood Lateral and Broadway Commons.

Once the votes said yes, the 22 acres at Broadway Commons was acquired by Rock Gaming LLC.

Gerhardt says the casino "bodes well for major development projects. It's a good example for how the public and private sectors can work together."

Charlie Luken
Cincinnati's longest-serving mayor played a key role in getting the casino ballot initiative passed as chairman of the statewide ballot initiative, and he led the Ohio Jobs and Growth Committee PAC.

Now senior counsel at Columbus-based law firm Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP, Luken joined the firm in 2006.

Christopher Smitherman
Horseshoe Casino leadership credits NAACP Cincinnati Chapter President and now-City Councilman Christopher Smitherman with being an early and important supporter.

Smitherman sees potential for jobs, during construction as well as operation. In May 2011, Rock Ohio Caesars LLC became the first owner and construction team to sign the NAACP's Construction Partnership Agreement, guidelines to help construction firms reach meaningful minority participation on projects. Horseshoe's total construction spend in Cincinnati is estimated at $150 million. Through December 2011, Rock Ohio Caesars has awarded $89.1 million in contracts, with 34.8 percent awarded to MBE and WBE certified companies. This is above the 20 percent economic inclusion goal.


No Hotel for Now

Horseshoe has agreed to not build a hotel for five years or until downtown hotel occupancy rates are at a sustained 75 percent.

"A hotel at the casino won't necessarily bring business to the city," says Dan Lincoln, president of the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. "People would just stay at the casino."

Occupancy at Cincinnati's primary downtown hotels (not including extended stay locations) hovers between 60 percent and 65 percent. "Our hotel community is healthy, but they are still crawling their way out of the economic collapse," Lincoln says.

General manager Kevin Kline is meeting with hotels and many restaurants to possibly create partnerships that will benefit Caesar's Total Rewards members and others who might earn "comps." Most Horseshoe guests stay two or three days. "And they do explore the city," he says.

Horseshoe will provide shuttles between the city's primary hotels and the casino, but will also emphasize the city as pedestrian-friendly.