Suddenly, something that didn’t seem possible became, however slightly, a possibility.
In an interview with WFPL, Mayor Greg Fischer said downtown Louisville would be a good spot for a casino.
“That could change a whole lot of the dynamics downtown,” Fischer said earlier this month.
And, soon after, Gov. Steve Beshear told The Courier-Journal that he may push for a Kentucky constitutional amendment allowing for casinos not tied to a racetrack, noting that he needed to discuss this with the racetracks first.
Now, none of this means anything certain. Casino gambling isn’t currently permitted in Kentucky in any form and past efforts to get some form of it — anything — approved by the General Assembly and onto ballots for a statewide referendum have failed.
But, since the topic has been broached, it’s useful to consider whether a casino in downtown Louisville is a good idea in the first place. The thoroughbred industry’s interests are clear — casino gambling could boost purses, leading to more and better horses in Kentucky races. But what would a free-standing downtown Louisville casino do for the rest of us?
It’s helpful to remember that other cities near Louisville have downtown casinos. Here’s a look at a few of them.
St. Louis’ ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’
Since 2007, a downtown casino in St. Louis has been a mixed bag for that city, said Sarah Coffin, a professor of public policy studies at St. Louis University.
Casinos, Coffin said, are “low-hanging fruit” for cities seeking to develop downtown.
“The upside is not very high; the downside is not very low,” she said.
In St. Louis, the concerns that critics often raise with casinos — crime, gambling addictions — haven’t materialized in part because of state regulations and the casino’s location, she said. The casino has brought revenue for the city.
But, Coffin said, said the benefits don’t go far beyond money for St. Louis’ coffers.
The casino has also created jobs. But Coffin said the vast majority of those jobs are low-paying — not the sort that improve cities. Though an attraction, St. Louis’ downtown casino hasn’t helped foster more development around the site, though the location on the Mississippi River and removed from the city core, she said.
Coffin noted that she once lived and worked in Louisville. While a casino could have benefits, she said she’d expect Louisville leaders to find a better approach for Louisville’s downtown development.
“It’s low on the creativity scale,” she said.
Cleveland Brings the Suburbanites
Cleveland’s experience with downtown casinos began with the concern about crime, said Ned Hill, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.
Specifically: “You don’t build a city on the backs of drunks,” Hill said.
The idea was based on conventioneers. They come to a city for a few days and need something to do — a casino fits the bill. But the convention industry isn’t as strong today as it was when Cleveland first began considering a downtown casino, Hill said, and that reasoning alone — one of the reasons Fischer brought up when broaching the downtown casino idea — seemed to undercut the argument for them.
Still, Hill said the downtown casino has been “positive” for Cleveland.
The Cleveland casino was placed in a downtown building that once housed a beloved department store, Higbee’s. Besides crime, traffic was a major concern, too.
The downtown Cleveland casino has been open less than a year, but Hill said the positive effects have included attracting suburbanites to the city core. Traffic hasn’t turned out to be a big problem, nor have crime rates driven upward, Hill said.
“It’s not a disruption,” he said.
The thing about casinos is, they tend to be self-containing — the bar, the restaurant, the hotel are all in the same complex, Hill noted. Casino players aren’t going to leave to eat when there’s a restaurant 20 steps away from the slot machines.
A casino can do good things for a downtown — bringing in suburbanites is no small thing — but he said they can’t be seen as a single solution for a city’s core.
“It’s an ancillary attraction,” he said. “Only in one city are casinos an attraction.”
Try as they may, St. Louis, Cleveland nor Louisville can ever be Las Vegas where casinos are concerned.