Photos from inside the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, scheduled to open March 4, 2013, in downtown Cincinnati. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO Digital Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO Digital
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Critics worry new Horseshoe Casino will hurt Cincinnati's character, culture

Proponents argue it will boost downtown

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CINCINNATI - The $400 million Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati has transformed a sprawling parking lot at Reading Road and Central Parkway into a glittering money magnet.

But will it change the city's character?

For decades, Cincinnati has been the city that actively worked to keep gambling and other objectionable activity out or at least elsewhere, such as in Newport, Ky. The late President Ronald Reagan joked in the 1980s that Cincinnati was so conservative, its residents had to "cross the river to have a good time."

Local history experts say that whole image is more myth than fact.

"On the north side of the river, gambling flourished somewhat openly up until World War II," said Kevin Grace, University of Cincinnati's university archivist. Cock fighting and illegal boxing matches were most popular in the early days, he said. "In the 19th century, the big winners were saloons and bars in Over-the-Rhine."

Organized crime controlled illegal gambling in Northern Kentucky by the 1940s, and it thrived until the 1970s.

"Before Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Cincinnati was the hot spot," said former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, a local history buff. Of course, the big action was happening in Northern Kentucky ,and the fanciest place to go was the old Beverly Hills Supper Club, Tarbell said.

"The blue bloods of Cincinnati went to Beverly Hills," Tarbell said, referring to the once glamorous Southgate supper club that burned in 1977, killing 165 people. "Not everyone found their way back to the gaming tables.  But Beverly Hills was a very highfalutin, rootin' tootin' place."

In those respects, the new downtown casino takes Cincinnati back to its regional gambling roots.

Still, there are those who worry the casino will tear at the city's moral fabric.

Phil Burress believes the casino will bring the city nothing but trouble.

"It's going to mean more crime, more prostitution and the evils that always come with gambling," said Burress, president of Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, which fought against expanded gambling in Ohio. "Anytime you have to have armed guards and cameras on every wall and people watching from the ceiling, there's a problem there."

Former Hamilton County Sheriff Si Leis doesn't buy that, though.

"You know what the biggest crime in Indiana was with those casinos there?" Leis said. "One Ohio car bumping into another Ohio car."

Leis said he doesn't foresee any increase in crime because of the casino, adding that law enforcement can "control that easily."

Law enforcement agencies have been working for months to make sure the casino and area around it is safe, said Jim Knapp, chief of staff for Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil.

"Everybody should feel very, very safe," Knapp said. "Then of course we have the jail over here for anybody who wants to challenge us. But I don't think anybody has anything to worry about."

Leis said he thinks the casino will be a "welcome addition."

"Everybody likes to gamble, and some people do it more than others," said Leis, who gained fame in the 1970s as Hamilton County prosecutor when he won a conviction against Larry Flynt on obscenity charges. "It's a form of entertainment as long as you can control yourself."

That's how the Roman Catholic Church comes down on the issue, too.

"The only moral issue is restrained use of it," said Father Michael Seger, a professor of moral theology at The Athenaeum of Ohio. "If it's used responsibly, gambling as a pastime or sport, that's fine and dandy."

The Catholic Conference of Ohio draws a distinction between casino gambling and charitable bingo, which raises big money for Catholic churches, schools and other programs. The conference opposed Issue 3, the constitutional amendment passed in 2009 that made way for the building of casinos in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus. The organization argued back then that the new casinos would aggravate social problems.

Indiana officials said casinos in Vevay and Lawrenceburg, Ind., haven't had a big impact on the community fabric there, however.

Back in 2002, when the Belterra Casino Resort had different owners, the casino was fined $2.26 million and closed temporarily because of allegations that it entertained guests at a 2001 golf outing with prostitutes.

But Switzerland County Commission President Mike Jones said that incident was unusual and that the casino has been a boon to the community.

"I know there are a lot of people who have issues with gaming and gambling," said Jones, who also is superintendent of Switzerland County Schools and pastor of Patriot Baptist Church. "But the way I looked at it, we already had the lottery here. We already had horse racing. Gambling was already here. It was a question of, do you want this, which will have more direct impact on the county's economy."

And the biggest problem that Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg has caused is increased traffic, said Doug Taylor, a police officer and Lawrenceburg City Council member.

"Our casino here is on the east side of town. And on some days, you wouldn't even know it was there," Taylor said.

Of course, the idea behind the new Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati is to make sure everyone knows it is part of downtown.

For those who live near the development, it's a big improvement over the parking lot the casino replaced.

"While I may never gamble a dollar at any table there, I do see it as a great leap forward for the community," said David White, president of the Pendleton Neighborhood Council, which has been working with casino developers to make sure the project benefits the neighborhood.

"That parking lot was a cash cow," he said. "And there was nothing that was going to change it from being an ugly parking lot – ever."

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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