ANDERSON TWP., Ohio -- The $300 million transformation from River Downs race track into Belterra Park Gaming & Entertainment Center is complete and the gaming floor featuring 1,500 video slot games opened at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The new racino, at 6201 Kellogg Ave., adds a year-round entertainment and dining attraction to its summertime neighbors, Riverbend Music Center and Coney Island, which already draw 1 million visitors.
PHOTOS: Tour of Belterra Park
Excited township officials are expecting Belterra Park to draw hundreds of thousands more, contribute millions in tax revenue and drive new development at the I-275 exit along the Ohio River, 10 miles east of downtown.
"We're getting calls constantly," said township trustees president Russ Jackson. "We never got calls - maybe one a year - and all of a sudden we're saying, 'Wait a minute.'
"We've been here forever, and all of a sudden now we have the interest."
While hoping for more dining, businesses and housing, Jackson really wants a hotel to make the Kellogg Avenue corridor a premier entertainment district.
"Once you get a hotel, now you've become a destination. We're 10 minutes from downtown - a perfect location to develop. And that's what were going to see here," Jackson said.
Belterra Park General Manager Kevin Kauffman has said the racino would work with its neighbors to develop an entertainment district.
The first gamblers in the door Thursday evening were pleased with the new Belterra Park.
"It's more up-class, bigger, a lot of restaurants in there," Fay Pappas.
Kurt Gore, who works for Yates Construction, said, "This is nice, I mean this is nice. We built a grand place here."
Yates Construction oversaw the $3 million project.
"This is the first casino I've done for the company I've worked for and I'm amazed at what came together to tell you the truth. It's absolutely beautiful in there," Gore said.
Belterra Park's gaming floor is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Besides slots, the region's sixth casino features live thoroughbred racing on a new one-mile dirt track.
Racing is scheduled to begin May 8 and will take place through October. Visitors can bet on races there and others simulcast from around the country, including Saturday's Kentucky Derby .
Barry Howard will likely bet on horse races at Belterra Park. He's been doing so for 30 years, and has many memories from River Downs.
"Horses. That's all. Horses. I'm a horse man," he said. "I don't go downtown. I just go to this one and Miami Valley."
Dwight Williams believes the horse racing will set Belterra Park apart from the competition.
"I mean it's what it is around here. It's history. It's part of Cincinnati," he said.
A new turf track is expected to open in 2015.
River Downs opened in 1925 and hosted live racing until 2012. At 16, apprentice jockey Steve Cauthen won his first race there in 1976 before riding Affirmed to the Triple Crown two years later.
- Stadium Sports Bar & Grill
- Market Buffet
- Burger Brothers
Live entertainment will also be available, starting Friday, with rock band Stays in Vegas.
Other features include a VIP lounge called Club 38, the River Downs Club for off-track betting and a parking garage.
The new complex is also protected against flooding, which used to create havoc at River Downs a couple of times a year.
"We're built above the 100-year floodplain," said Reggie Dotson, public relations manager of Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc., which owns and operates Belterra Park.
Pinnacle, one of the biggest names in casino gambling, owns Belterra Casino Resort in Florence, Ind., and 15 other casinos in nine states.
"We are very proud of Belterra Park. It's ready to go," Pinnacle CEO Anthony Sanfilippo said Wednesday.
"We have a very enthusiastic team at Belterra Park, who are ready to go, ready to take great care of our guests. We have a wonderful location and truly we feel like we have achieved our goal of having an integrated racing, gaming, food and beverage facility.
"We are getting a lot of positive comments from those who have seen it, who are outside of our company, and we think it's going to do very, very well."
Belterra Park has a staff of 800.
The big question is: How many casinos are too many?
Are there enough gamblers to go around, or is the market oversaturated with three casinos in Southeast Indiana and now three more in Southwest Ohio, including Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati downtown and the new Miami Valley Gaming racino north of the city in Turtlecreek Township? Both opened last year.
The region's casinos are not growing total revenue – just carving up the same pie into smaller pieces with each casino staking claim to a geographic market.
That's what happening in Butler County with the new Miami Valley Gaming racino, its operator says.
"We think we can grow the market and we think that's because of where we're located within the market," said William C. Carstanjen, President and COO of Churchill Downs, Inc.
like how we're situated between Dayton and Cincinnati where we can draw pretty well from those southern portion of the Dayton suburbs, and from the northern Cincinnati suburbs and we're tucked right in there on I-75. So I think we feel very good about the start so far.
"We think we fill a niche in the market, a geographical niche where there's some good population bases to pull from. So over time, there'll be two other properties that open in that market, one fairly far away from us, the Belterra property. We feel pretty good that we're pretty distant from that. And then the Penn property, which will open north of Dayton. We'll have to watch and see how they do when they do open.
"But our niche is really that corridor between southern portion of Dayton and northern portion of Cincinnati."
Among the region's casinos, Pinnacle's casino-resort in Florence, Ind., appears to be the most at risk.
It took a huge, double-digit drop in revenue and visits in the first quarter year over year. Pinnacle attributed that to increased competition and the harsh winter.
As a racino, Belterra Park could carve out its own niche of horse players, in competition with Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., to go with gamblers from the east side and Northern Kentucky.
And it could draw from the Riverbend concert audience, while Coney Island is mostly family fare.
"We're not chasing market share. We're going after profitable revenue," said Virginia E. Shanks, Pinnacle's chief administrative officer.
(WCPO reporter Jason Law contributed to this report.)