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Five Years After Hollywood Casino's Opening, Much Of West Side Yet To Cash In

Slot machines inside Hollywood Casino in Columbus.
Kantele Franko
Associated Press
Columbus' Hollywood Casino opened in 2012 after the legalization of gambling in the city.

One Monday morning, the slot machines at the Hollywood Casino have already attracted a few gamblers to try their luck. Todd Gillis, 48, is one of them. 

The West Side resident visits the casino, in his words, “more than he should.” But the week before, it paid off.

“I had a couple of good hands last week," Gillis says. "I got about $600, so I did pretty well."

This fall marks the fifth anniversary of the birth of legal gambling in Columbus. When the Hollywood Casino opened on the West Side in October 2012, officials hoped it would bring new jobs and businesses to the depressed neighborhood.

While some improvements did happen on West Broad Street since then, many residents say they’re still waiting for more.

Gillis says he has gambled here for about two years.  When he drives to the shiny-new casino, he still sees signs of struggle on West Broad street, like the deserted Westland Mall.

“I don’t think it had the desired effect that we all thought it was going to have, about rejuvenating the West Side," Gillis says. "I mean, it broke my heart when the mall closed, when Sears finally closed down. That was a very sad occurrence for me because I remember that as a kid growing up."

Around the corner from Westland Mall, more than 900 people work inside the Hollywood Casino. It took the place of the Delphi auto parts plant, which closed in 2007, and now general manager Himbert Sinopoli says he’s looking to fill 80 more open positions.

“What we are sitting on here is the old site. You used to have thousands of jobs here," Sinopoli says. "When we took over this site, there were zero jobs here. We now have a thousand employees that work here. So just that alone is quite the revitalization when you consider it was a brownfield site that’s been remediated, and you went from zero jobs to a thousand."

Credit Debbie Holmes / WOSU
Residents of the West Side say the Hollywood Casino has not brought as many jobs or businesses as promised. Many storefronts still remain abandoned.

The casino attracts about 3 million visitors a year. When Penn National Gaming, which also operates casinos in Toledo, Dayton and around the country, opened the Hollywood, it talked of a hotel on the site.  

Sinopoli says that’s still a possibility, which would entice out of town visitors to stay longer and spend more money. In the meantime, another company plans to build a hotel nearby, with groundbreaking next spring.

According to Census Data, the area around the casino has seen a 9 percent increase in jobs - many of which come from the casino itself, but not all. The area has also seen a net increase of 40 businesses.

At Ding Ho, a Cantonese restaurant on Phillipi Road just north of the casino, owner Stephen Yee credits the casino with a 10 percent boost in his business.

“Sales were kind of flat before the casino came aboard, because Kohl’s closed down, Macy’s closed down and it was kind of flat," Yee says. "We got a little worried.  But once they built the casino, we saw sales going up."

Earlier this year, Auto Zone opened a mega hub for Ohio just east of the casino. But assistant manager Enrique Vela says he’s not sure the casino played a role in the decision to locate on West Broad Street.

“This area is known for cars and stuff like that," Vela says. "And everything that is sold here, the whole area, we’re surrounded literally by all types of people that sell cars, so that helps out the whole neighborhood."

Plenty of lots and store fronts remain empty. In addition to Sears, Target left and a restaurant on Phillipi Road moved. Soon, the headquarters of Big Lots will relocate to Columbus’s east side.

Credit Debbie Holmes / WOSU
Chris Haydocy, a car and RV salesman, helped bring the Hollywood Casino to the West Side and says it's paid off.

Opponents of the casino worried it would attract adult businesses and crime, though zoning restrictions helped keep out new strip clubs. Meanwhile, the crime rate in the area has dropped for thefts, robberies and burglaries. Only aggravated assaults climbed, from just one before the casino to three in 2016.     

Matt Schuler, head of the Ohio Casino Control Commission, says the results from the casino are mixed.

“Looking back at the five years, they promised jobs, they’ve provided jobs, not as many as they promised," Schuler says. "They promised that they would repatriate revenue from other casinos into the state. That they have done."

Schuler says about 13 percent of gambling money that Ohioans spent in other states now stays in Ohio. 

Overall revenues from Ohio’s casinos, though, have been much less than what supporters projected. They claimed that the casinos, with the race tracks adding video slot machines, would generate $1.4 billion a year.

Last year’s total was just over half that: $800 million.

Still, West Side business leaders remain optimistic, including car and RV dealer Chris Haydocy. Haydocy helped bring the casino to the neighborhood, and he says it's paid off.

“When you looked at what we had, a half a loaf was better than no loaf at all, meaning if we moved ahead whatsoever, because we were headed on a trajectory downward, and there was no stopping it," Haydocy says. "So the casino answered many of our prayers in terms of the investment."