Louis Beck is not a gambler. At the outset, he wants this perfectly understood.

Seated in the corporate offices of Union Savings Bank in Symmes Township, Beck"”immaculately tailored and groomed"”places both hands on his desk and talks about slot machines. "I'm not a gambler. I'm in the hotel and banking business. But it struck me that Cincinnati really ought to have it.

"Many people missed the point. This was always about economic development. It wasn't about gaming."

What began the year with Beck as Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, evolved into a hard-charging underdog campaign to bring slot machines to downtown Cincinnati. A crusade that ended up collapsing. Or, as Beck wryly puts it, "We were late to the party."

But he hasn't folded. Beck and others who mobilized a movement to lobby for Cincinnati gaming say that regardless of election politics this year, they will press on with the cause. They hope local voters may have a chance to decide next year if they want gambling downtown.

Here's how events unfolded, spinning like a roulette wheel.

"¢ Various groups begin talking about amending the state consitution to permit gambling. In March, a proposal called "Learn & Earn" emerges as frontrunner. It's conceived by owners of Ohio's racetracks, along with Cleveland development moguls Jeff Jacobs and Albert Ratner. The plan promises to funnel millions in gaming revenue to financial aid for Ohio college and high school students, and also generate "economic development" assistance"”as much as $40 million annually for Cincinnati and Hamilton County. It calls for allowing slot machines at the tracks"”including RiverDowns in Anderson Township and Lebanon Raceway in Lebanon"”plus two downtown Cleveland locations favoring Jacobs and Ratner. Learn & Earn makes allowance for one slots casino in Cincinnati. And as an added twist, the amendment allows Cuyahoga County voters to return to the polls in four years to approve full casino gambling at the Cleveland-area locations. The Greater Cleveland Partnership (the Chamber coalition there) endorses the proposal.

"¢ A lobbyist tips off Louis Beck about Learn & Earn. He explores the possibilities, then forms Queen City Gaming and gets an option to buy 20 acres at Broadway Commons downtown, current home to gritty parking lots. He conceives a $300-million, eight-story hotel with 350 rooms, a massive 4,500-car parking garage, convention space"”and three floors of slot machines.

"¢ Penn National Gaming, owner of Argosy Casino in nearby Lawrenceburg, Ind., acquires Toledo Raceway, joins the Learn & Earn group­"”and lowers the boom: the Queen City is promptly dropped from the intiative. Argosy draws a big chunk of its customers from Greater Cincinnati and isn't about to concede them to Louis Beck or anyone else.

"¢ Leslie Ghiz, outspoken City Council member, is outraged. She joins Jim Tarbell, vice mayor and champion of inner city redevelopment, to fight for Cincinnati gaming. They team with Beck, who announces he'll commit $2 million to a separate ballot initiative, with Cincinnati's slots rights restored. County sheriff and moral crusader Simon Leis Jr. publicly supports slots to raise money for a new county jail, a main reason why David Pepper, former councilman and Democratic candidate for county commissioner, also comes on board.

In early May, Council's Finance Committee, chaired by John Cranley, passes a resolution (7-2) in support of Beck's proposal. Mayor Mark Mallory protests the "unfairness" of dropping his city from the Learn & Earn amendment, but avoids saying whether he would support it.

"¢ The Beck amendment group struggles to get enough petition signatures verified. Ghiz and others charge that Learn & Earn forces are pulling every maneuveur possible to stymie them. In June, facing petition deadlines they cannot possibly meet, Beck gives up the cause for now. Ghiz vows revenge.

"¢ In July, Ghiz files a lawsuit against Learn & Earn, claiming it used deception in its petition drive and failed to comply with state regulations. The drama continues.

What lead Beck to be in this unlikely situation? Motivation, money and location. He sees legalized gaming as an opportunity to help revitalize Cincinnati's inner city, especially Over-the-Rhine. He has money to back a development project and a political campaign for slots, and he had a place to put them. 

"People rallied behind this because they realized this offered real opportunity, to create a catalyst as the [city] population was leaving," he explains. "No one wants us to be seen as the national Queen of Population Loss."

Louis Beck, 60, is best described as a low-key, sincere businessman who prefers to operate under the public radar. But he's no under-achiever. He knows finance and lodging. As chairman of Union Savings Bank and Guardian Savings Bank, two of the healthiest private savings banks in the nation, he oversees $2 billion in assets. He also chairs Janus Hotels and Resorts, managing nearly 50 hotels. And he has partnered with a close friend"”Jerry Springer"”in two startup ventures in Florida.

The son of Arnold Beck, who operated his own construction business, Beck graduated from Woodward High School, then attended the University of Cincinnati and the Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University. He maintains homes in Montgomery and Florida, commuting by private jet (he's a licensed pilot). Beck and his wife, Patty, have three children.

To those who know him, Beck's behind-the-scenes charitable work exemplifies his character and civic nature.

Marcia Spaeth Kennedy, previously married to former Mayor Charlie Luken, is the past executive director of the Tender Mercies homeless shelter. She now works as community relations liaison for Beck's banks, coordinating volunteer work by employees and Beck's charitable giving to local groups. Having known him since 1975, she describes Beck as a corporate executive who cares deeply about his city, one who donates money and rolls up his sleeves to do volunteer work behind the scenes.

"The man is incredibly good and generous," says Spaeth Kennedy. "When the gaming came up, well, I like a fight. It's not so much that I'm for gaming, but I knew if Louis Beck backed it, he'd be a conscience."

Indeed, Beck has promised to dedicate millions in gaming revenues to a foundation to help Over-the-Rhine.

Jim Tarbell likes what he sees in Beck, too. "He wants to play a big part in getting the city turned around"”especially the inner city," Tarbell says. "We're lucky to have someone like that come forward with his reputation." But Tarbell also understands why Beck seems to be out on a limb. "He's not tied in closely with the mainstream business community."

The Cincinnati Enquirer quickly broadsided the Beck proposal, running a big editorial lamenting the potential social downsides of downtown gaming. Around the same time, The Enquirer also published a couple of sizable features on the joys of gambling at Indiana's Argosy, Grand Victoria and Belterra casinos"”three substantial advertisers.

Some local politicians grumbled that seeing our establishment sitting on the sidelines, while Cleveland's hustled ahead, was like the Bengals forfeiting a big game to the Browns. "People ducked and hid," David Pepper says. "Local leaders didn't step up. We were trying to make up for that void."

That's not quite the whole story, according to Doug Moormann, vice president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. First, downtown corporate leaders are focused on the agenda of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp.(known as 3CDC): the Fountain Square overhaul, Over-the-Rhine redevelopment and the biggest development goal of all, The Banks. And the Cincinnati Chamber traditionally does not take a stand on a ballot issue until it's certified and the ballot language is official, he notes.


Among Chamber leaders, Cincinnati gambling just hasn't been on their radar, Moorman says. "In not a single one of these (development) discussions has anyone talked about gaming as an anchor or a core attraction essential to success."

Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) also hasn't taken up the issue, yet. But the core issue"”does Cincinnati want gambling?"”is hovering. "It's a very legitimate question," says DCI spokesperson Julie Maslov. "It's definitely being discussed, and we're seeing the traction it has."

A key difference between Cincinnati and Cleveland is the city by the lake has big-league players who like gaming. The Ratner family's Forest City Enterprises, a multi-billion dollar real estate development company that has backed previous gambling initiatives in Ohio, wants gambling at their Tower City complex in Cleveland. And now they're partnering with Harrah's (of Las Vegas fame) to compete for Pittsburgh's lone slots casino license.

Jacobs, whose father once owned the Indians, has invested in gaming enterprises in three states and owns the Colonial Downs racetrack in Virigina. He built the Nautica entertainment project in Cleveland's riverfront Flats district, which could be re-energized by gaming.

"So you have a group of business leaders highly focused on casinos as part of a revitalized downtown Cleveland," Moorman points out. "In Cincinnati, we didn't have a motivated champion or champions for gaming."

Well, not until Louis Beck became intrigued by the possibilities.

"I've learned never to say 'never'," is how Beck puts it. "These are smart businessmen [in Cleveland] who need to have the support of Cincinnati to eventually pass this."

If Ghiz doesn't stop Learn & Earn in court, she vows to discourage Southwest Ohioans from signing the group's petitions. "I'm telling everyone to sign nothing. If they do get on the ballot, I'll fight to make sure they get not one vote from Southwest Ohio. Trust me, I've got a big mouth."

If the issue passes"”another big "if" considering Ohio voters defeated pro-gambling issues twice in the 1990s"”the local advocates most likely will try again for a Cincinnati-only gaming amendment. Ghiz fears a future possibility of full casino gambling in Cleveland and, perhaps, across the river in Newport or Covington. "Then we can kiss our city goodbye," she sighs. "We've got to stop living in fear of change, in fear of anything new or dynamic or progressive."

Beck is more conciliatory. If Learn & Earn fails, he sees an opportunity to start over, put aside the bitterness, and return next year with a consensus proposal for all Ohio voters to consider, Cincinnatians included.

Tarbell says it's time for the city to lose its smugness and make gambling an asset. "I just don't get hung up on the moral issues as long as we have a government-run lottery, which is more pervasive for the people who are most vulnerable."

Beck agrees. "We're surrounded by it now," he observes about gambling. "It's legitimate adult entertainment. We have the social costs. We should have the revenue that goes with it.

"Look at the people who came together to support this," he continues. "Republicans, Democrats, Charterites, Si Leis and the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police]. They all said this is the right thing for Cincinnati. If I can play some small role in the future, then I would like to."

'SIN CITY' memories shadow gaming debate

The last time Cincinnati saw gambling get out of hand, it wasn't a pretty sight.

Although efforts to bring a few slot machines to downtown Cincinnati could hardly be compared to the Al Capone era, memories of Newport's past revive such images for many Cincinnatians. We're talking about bawdy Newport, from the 1920s until not so long ago.

In its heyday, illegal gambling, strip clubs and prostitution were commonplace there, earning the town the nickname "Sin City." The arrival of Prohibition intensified the action. Monmouth Street was laden with streetfront brothels and illegal bootlegging operations. Nightspots such as the Hi-De-Ho Club, The Tropicana and The Playtorium (where The Syndicate restaurant stands today) populated the strip. Familiar names such as Albert "Red" Masterson (shot in gangland fashion at his Newport gambling house) and Frank "Screw" Andrews dominated the headlines. As the joke went, death of natural causes in Newport was often due to "lead" poisoning.

The outlaw reputation drew law-abiding citizens from all over the Midwest, along with major-league entertainment, with shows by the Andrews Sisters, Liberace, Cab Calloway, or Jimmy Durante.

Finally, upstanding Newport citizens campaigned to clamp down on police corruption and crooked politicians. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's organized crime task force went after the Cleveland syndicate, which controlled most of the Newport operations. A ban on nude dancing in 1982 marked the end of a sordid era.

But for many people in the Tristate, attitudes about gambling are influenced by another memory: the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., which burned to the ground in 1977, taking the lives of 165 patrons. Beverly Hills began in the 1930s as a nightspot featuring illegal gaming. "It was the most conspicuous gambling spot in the country at one time," recalls Cincinnati Councilman Jim Tarbell, a former saloonkeeper.

In 1971, Beverly Hills was reborn as a legit, upscale dining club featuring Vegas-style architecture, decor and attitude"”along with top entertainers from Los Angeles to New York. Some of the same stars who were spotted at Newport's hotspots also showed up at Beverly Hills, including rat-packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Tarbell envisions a similar establishment becoming the anchor to The Banks project on the Cincinnati riverfront: fine dining, great entertainment"”and casino gambling. As Beverly Hills once was, "there's no reason this couldn't be the most compelling entertainment destination in the Midwest," he asserts.

When Newport was at its worst, Cincinnati's bluebloods could look the other way"”just as some did when they dined, danced and laughed at Beverly Hills, ignoring the gambling rooms there. Their attitude: let Cleveland have its mobsters, and let the hustlers and hookers flourish across the Ohio River. Keep our Queen City clean.

Such ingrained attitudes may explain why we're now content to let Indiana "boats" siphon local gaming dollars. Then again, during Newport's worst era no one envisioned state-sanctioned lotteries, or the day when gambling would be equated with economic development.