CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland’s downtown casino and related racino at Thistledown are in a new phase without Dan Gilbert, who led the 2009 voter drive to legalize gambling in Ohio and open the state’s first casino in downtown Cleveland in 2012.
JACK Entertainment confirmed Wednesday that the management team had bought Gilbert’s ownership interests, a deal that closed in December without a formal announcement and so quietly that visitors never would have noticed a difference.
Business of late has largely mirrored that of the other casinos and racinos in the state -down sharply overall in 2020, the result coronavirus-related closings and restrictions on hours, yet robust when fully open. The industry statewide had record performances in 2020 for months when permitted to be open round-the-clock, both before and after the full closings during the spring.
Matt Cullen, chairman of JACK Entertainment, said it has “been a really challenging year” since the outbreak of the virus. But he added, “on a relative basis, we’ve done well. … We really embraced the COVID protocols. From the time we reopened, we were able to make people feel very safe.”
Cullen covered a number of topics during an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer about the casino, racino and their continued operation under the JACK brand.
With Gilbert selling his ownership stake, who owns JACK Entertainment?
Cullen said he is the lead investor among a “significant group of investors” that bought out Gilbert’s ownership shares. This includes “roughly 15 or 20 top management people” who were in place ahead of the sale.
Cullen has been with Gilbert’s family of companies for more than a decade, leading both the gambling side and other businesses such as real estate. Previously, he was General Manager of Economic and Development Services for General Motors.
How important would it be if Ohio ever joins neighboring states in legalizing bets on pro and college sports?
“I can’t say it’s a need, but certainly something we would be enthusiastic about and our customers would like,” Cullen said of the potential of sports wagering.
“We would love to be able to make it available to our customers. I know it is being considered in the state of Ohio. We won’t comment on that process. But it has been a great asset in other jurisdictions. We know a lot of our customers would enjoy it.”
Separate proposals in the Ohio House and Ohio Senate have languished, despite Gov. Mike DeWine saying in introducing his 2019 budget that he anticipated state revenue from sports gambling at some point during the course of the two-year budget.
Sports wagering by itself is not huge in the casino industry, accounting for a small fraction of gambling revenue in Las Vegas. But it is considered a draw for the casinos, bringing in customers who end up spending money other ways.
How about Thistledown?
Though much smaller in terms of gambling revenue than the MGM Northfield Park racino just down the road in Summit County, the JACK Thistledown Racino in North Randall ahead of the pandemic posted the biggest year-to-year gains in business among Ohio’s 11 casinos and racinos each of the previous two years.
Gambling revenue, the money kept after paying out winnings, was up 10.4% in 2018 and 11.7% to $142.5 million in 2019, state reports show. And in the first two months of 2020, before the pandemic struck, revenue was up another 18.6%.
Cullen said he believed the gains were related to investments JACK has made in the facility, and continues to make. Work is now under way on a new outdoor patio for slots, a feature popular among gamblers who like to smoke but are not permitted to do so inside at Ohio’s casinos and racinos.
The original patio, Cullen said “was kind of built after the fact. This one is really being built ground up in a very thoughtful way.”
Racinos like Thistledown and Northfield Park are permitted to offer only chance-based slot machines, called video lottery terminals, unlike casinos that offer table games and a wider variety of slots. The downtown Cleveland casino has the top table game revenue in Ohio.
How well does it work to be a gambling company with just two sites?
But Cullen said he believes it works for JACK because casinos have become more regional in nature, now that so many states have so many casinos and racinos.
“Regional gaming is just that; it’s regional. Your customer comes from a relatively near circumference,” Cullen said.
For JACK, this is the Northeast Ohio crowd that largely went to Detroit, Pittsburgh, Erie, Pennsylvania, or Chester, West Virginia, for their “local” gambling trips ahead of the legalization in Ohio.
The Cleveland casino historically is second behind Hollywood Columbus for revenue among Ohio’s four casinos. Last year was different, dropping to third, as Hollywood Toledo experienced a big boost in business when the Detroit casinos had more extended closings.
Would JACK buy other casinos or be open to being bought?
“We’re focused on the two properties,” Cullen said, when asked of any more potential ownership changes.
But as to if an opportunity came up, Cullen said, “smart people listen to alternatives.” This could include being a buyer: “We want to continue to grow these assets and may look to continue to grow the company itself in looking at other assets.”
JACK Entertainment recently has been part of three major deals, that included selling its Cincinnati and Detroit casinos:
* JACK’s former Cincinnati casino is owned by VICI but operated by Hard Rock International following the closing in late 2019 of a $745 million deal ($558 million from VICI, $187 million from Hard Rock) for both the casino and JACK’s Turfway Park in Kentucky. The final deal involved Churchill Downs ending up with Turfway.
* And while JACK continues to run the casino in Cleveland and racino at Thistledown, it is doing so under a lease agreement with VICI. VICI purchased the properties to lease back to JACK as part of an $843 million deal that closed in January 2020.
Gilbert’s approach to the casino was a little different from many other casinos, in not including a concert hall or theater, instead focusing on being part of downtown. Has that worked?
“I think it has worked,” Cullen said. “The whole predicate was let’s be part of the downtown and not compete with downtown. As a result we don’t have a lot of restaurants and nightclubs. We have a robust business approach where we give comps, meals, to surrounding restaurants.
“We got into this initially because we thought we could create vitality downtown. I think that has been the case and we will continue to partner with businesses downtown. … I’m bullish on downtown Cleveland. I think it’s a tremendous center for business and commerce. We know that success of the casino is going to be predicated on the the success of downtown.”
What about the original plan to build a casino overlooking the Cuyahoga River behind the Terminal Tower complex?
Voters may remember the glitzy drawings of a casino overlooking the river, south of Huron Avenue, that were showcased during the campaign to legalize gambling in Ohio back in 2009. That was set aside in favor of a quicker plan to move into the Higbee Building, billed as a temporary location at the time.
Over the years, temporary changed to permanent, with the river site labeled as what would become the second phase. But the second phase never came to be, and there are no plans in the works to change that.
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