At first blush, Bristol, Virginia seems to have little in common with Gary, Indiana.
Gary is a northern industrial city 70,000 residents, about 25 miles south of Chicago, has watched half of its population migrate away in recent decades — largely in the wake of the US steel industry’s struggles. A third of its citizens live at or below the federal poverty income level with the median household income at about $32,000, according to the US Census Bureau.
The city’s violent crime rate is high — about 1.5 times the national average and its murder rate is among the nation’s highest with 54 in 2020, or 78 per 100,000 population. The national average is five per 100,000.
Gary does play a significant role in US music history as birthplace of the Jackson family — Michael, Janet, LaToya, the Jackson Five and their collective Hall of Fame musical legacies.
It is a long way from these Appalachian Mountains, but there will soon be one common thread — a Hard Rock casino.
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In Gary, the Northern Indiana Hard Rock received its state gaming license in December 2019, broke ground the following month and opened in May 2021. It quickly became the largest grossing casino in a state where 14 other casinos already operate and two others in Illinois are nearby.
Built new in 17 months on land directly adjacent to Interstates 80/94, the $300 million, 200,000-square-foot facility is about five miles from the Illinois state line and easily accessible to Chicago’s southern suburbs. A 200-room hotel is expected to open in 2022 or 2023.
Hard Rock International, which will operate the Bristol casino, owns and operates the Gary Indiana location.
Gary community leaders there say Hard Rock has been a welcome addition to a city beset by high unemployment.
“The Hard Rock is a great community partner. They’re very involved and engaged with different community groups,” Gary city spokesman Mike Gonzalez said. “They are also a key part of Mayor Jerome Prince’s vision for the city of Gary. Mayor Prince envisions Gary becoming a technology hub and as a destination city. A place where people can come and enjoy the beaches, enjoy the casino, enjoy a pro baseball team — the Gary SouthShore Railcats — and the first family of entertainment — the Jacksons are looking to establish a greater presence.”
Jackson imagery and memorabilia is already front and center at the Hard Rock complex, which is expected to add a new hotel in the future.
The facility employs large numbers of Gary residents in a range of jobs, from security to service personnel and dealer positions, Gonzalez said.
Casino employment is above initial projects, with about 1,600 workers.
“Anything that brings good-paying jobs that provide benefits, anything that is going to cause that kind of economic development, is great. It’s clean so it’s not like they’re pouring pollutants into the air or the water and that’s something to celebrate. They are a great brand name and have a great product,” Gonzalez said.
The campus is located adjacent to Interstates 80/94, which carries about 160,000 vehicles per day. The city rezoned the property in 2019 to make way for the destination.
“Hard Rock is a great draw because so many people come from all over. It’s the top casino — maybe in the Midwest and definitely in Indiana. It’s a hugely important draw but they are also hugely involved in the community — helping with police vehicles and hosting events, fund-raising events for community organizations. Clearly they are involved with the people and organizations in Gary,” Gonzalez said.
Its 1,900-seat Hard Rock Live entertainment venue opened last November with a series of shows. Upcoming performers this summer include Wanda Sykes, Brett Young, Chaka Khan, Collective Soul, Anthrax, Tesla and Trevor Noah.
Parking lot surveys regularly reveal license tags from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky and other states, he said.
“They have been extremely cooperative with the Chamber of Commerce and the business community,” Chuck Hughes, president and CEO of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, said. “Everybody has a challenge maintaining employees, but they have doubled the employment of previous casino boats that we had. They were able to build on 80/94 — probably the busiest stretch of highway in the country — and they’ve done very well.”
Hard Rock has been making “great efforts” to be a good corporate citizen, Hughes said.
“They have also been very good about contributing to the community at large — nonprofits and for-profits. Right now we have no complaints. I have no complaints. They seem to have gone out of their way,” Hughes said. “Clearly we are in need of economic development so it almost behooves them to be very generous in their support of both community organizations and the community itself.”
Seeing casino gaming as a lifeline
Hughes said it was Gary — much like Bristol — that initiated the concept and led the way to bring casino gaming to Indiana back when he served on the Gary City Council.
“Casino gaming for the entire state of Indiana started with an idea in Gary. One of my colleagues had gone to Tunica Mississippi, and saw the economic development that was occurring around casinos and brought the idea back. We were looking for a way to get out of our economic malaise, so it was suggested we petition the state for casino gaming,” Hughes said.
That process included a referendum in the city that was approved by 60% of voters back in 1989.
Bristol’s referendum to allow a casino here — the centerpiece of Virginia casino legislation — was approved by a 65% majority.
“We’re a heavily Baptist church community, but it passed. It went to the administration at that time who drew up legislation, and it was forwarded to the state of Indiana,” Hughes said. “Indiana is a very conservative state, but — what they looked at, in my opinion — there was an inordinate amount of money to be made, and the decision was made to allow it.”
It took four tries to get casino legislation through Indiana’s General Assembly before it was finally approved during a 1994 special session.
The initial approval for Gary was for two boat-based casinos on Lake Michigan, rather than land-based casinos. Donald Trump’s Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts received one license and a Detroit businessman Don Barden received the other. Their floating casinos opened in 1996.
The Trump permit was later transferred to the other operator who continued operating both boats under the “Majestic Star” name.
“We recently lobbied the legislature to see if we could move our casino from the water to the highway,” Hughes said. “Of course there were demonstrations and protests from the others.” [casinos] because they felt that was giving Gary an advantage. To be able to move, we had to give up one of our licenses, and that went to Terre Haute, Indiana. You never get anything for nothing, so we gave up one of our licenses,” Hughes said.
The boat operating group held the permit for the land-based casino but was involved in a series of controversies, lawsuits and scrutiny from the state. Ultimately, Hard Rock International stepped in as the new owner-operator of the facility.
“There wasn’t any serious opposition prior to its [Hard Rock] opening. But Gary already had casino gaming on Lake Michigan since 1996. So having a casino in the Steel City was nothing new,” said Dan Carden, chief political reporter for The Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper. “The change was relocating from 25-year-old, permanently docked boats to a brand new building immediately adjacent to an interstate highway that just about every vehicle traveling east of Chicago passes by.”
Hard Rock International also sought to gain the license to operate in Terre Haute. However, last November the state commission voted 7-0 to award that license to Churchill Downs — operators of the Louisville horse track of the same name and the Kentucky Derby — to build and operate the Queen of Terre Haute casino, which is expected to open in 2024.
It was March 2022 that the Kentucky-based company announced a $2.48 billion deal to acquire the Colonial Downs horse track in Virginia, its series of six Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums and the rights to expand that brand and offer more slots-like gaming based on historic horse racing.
The Northern Indiana Hard Rock generated $372 million in gaming revenue during its first 12 months of operation — more than any other Indiana casino — according to the Indiana Gaming Commission. In turn, Hard Rock activities generated more than $98 million in wagering and supplemental taxes for the state and localities.
A review of monthly reports show that Hard Rock ascended to become Indiana’s top grossing casino in October 2021 and has remained there every month since.
For May, the Gary Hard Rock was again Indiana’s top earning casino, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission with $36.3 million in earnings, down from $38 million in April. It included $26.2 million from slot machines and $12.3 million from table games
Its sportsbook was just licensed and reported gross receipts of $69,400.
The casino generated more than $20 million in earnings during its first two weeks of opening last year, which generated a comment from Indiana Gaming Commission Executive Director Sara Gonso Tait in the commission’s fiscal 2021 annual report.
“This facility had an immediate impact on gaming revenues with win of $20.6 million in May and $25.9 million in June. This is more than doubled the combined former monthly win of Majestic Star 1 & 2, which ceased operations at Buffington Harbor pursuant to a law enacted in 2019 allowing a casino license to be transferred to the new land-based facility,” according to the report.
While Bristol’s full-menu Hard Rock Hotel and Casino won’t open for another two years, the temporary Bristol Casino, Future Home of Hard Rock, opens July 8.
Bristol’s temporary facility is to include 870 slot machines, 22 table games, two restaurants, two bars, a sports book and souvenir gift shop. It will employ more than 700 people.
Unlike Gary’s all new construction, part of the Bristol project will feature the adaptive reuse of the former Bristol Mall. The hotel tower will be new construction.
And while the Bristol site doesn’t overlook an interstate highway, it is only about a mile from I-81’s Exit 1, which sees about 45,000 vehicles pass each day.
The $400 million permanent facility is slated to have 1,500 slot machines, 55 table games, five restaurants, four bars, sports book, plus a 300-room phase 1 hotel and 2,000 seat Hard Rock Live performance venue, expandable to 20,000 outdoors. It is expected to provide more than 1,200 jobs and generate millions each year through various taxes.
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