Northwest Indiana gaming market repeatedly upended in 2021
The usually stable and predictable Northwest Indiana gaming market repeatedly was upended in 2021, beginning with the May 14 grand opening of the Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana.
The $300 million entertainment destination, located adjacent to eastbound Interstate 80-94 at the Burr Street exit, is the first state-regulated, land-based gaming facility in Indiana to be built away from its former dockside location.
The property contains a casino with approximately 1,600 slot machines and 80 table games; five restaurants, including a Hard Rock Cafe and the upscale Council Oak Steaks and Seafood; a 1,916-seat Hard Rock Live performance venue; and an on-site sports book and gift shop.
It replaced the Majestic Star Casinos that operated on Lake Michigan from Gary’s Buffington Harbor for the past 25 years. The two Majestic gaming boats that functioned as a single casino for most of this century permanently closed April 18 with a late-night party for its most loyal guests.
That bash was a small jam session, however, compared to the extravaganza that christened the new Hard Rock Casino, including a rock star-like guitar smash, instead of a staid ribbon cutting, in front of the new casino’s 37-foot tall guitar marquee on a brilliantly sunny spring morning.
Among those on hand were Gary natives Marlon and Tito Jackson of the Jackson 5 musical group; former state Sen. Earline “Casino Queen” Rogers, D-Gary, who championed a land-based casino in Gary for decades; Jon Lucas, Hard Rock International chief operating officer; along with dozens of state and local elected officials, community and business leaders, and many of the casino’s 1,200 employees.
“Today is a special day. A day that we will never forget. A day that puts Gary on a new course of economic growth and endless opportunities,” said state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, a key proponent of the 2019 Indiana law authorizing the Gary casino relocation.
“This is going to be a beneficial project for the entire city of Gary. We’re going from one of the state’s lowest revenue-generating casinos at Buffington Harbor to a location with more than 200,000 cars a day (passing by).”
Inside the casino, hundreds of pieces of music memorabilia — most with connections to Gary — line the walls and fill glass cases, including a museum-quality display of items connected to the Jackson family that first achieved international superstardom in the 1960s from a tiny house at 2300 Jackson St. in Gary.
During the Hard Rock opening ceremony, Gary Mayor Jerome Prince presented the Jackson brothers a key to the city of Gary in recognition of their continuing love and support for their hometown, perhaps most enthusiastically captured in the 1971 Jackson 5 hit, “Goin’ Back to Indiana.”
“I’m proud of my city Gary, Indiana,” Tito Jackson said. “Being raised here, starting our musical journey here, going to school here, everything about the Jackson 5 and the Jackson family was rooted right here in Gary, Indiana.”
He said the new casino is the start of Gary “doing the moonwalk back to success,” while Marlon Jackson characterized Gary as a diamond in the rough, and added, “You’re getting ready to get polished, baby.”
Not everything inside the Hard Rock Casino was available at its opening due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that forced guests at all Indiana casinos to wear face masks through roughly the first half of the year.
For example, the Hard Rock Live space initially was used as an extension of the gaming floor, housing some 300 slot machines, to ensure sufficient social distancing between casino guests.
That all changed in autumn though when Hard Rock brought online the final — and biggest — piece of its live entertainment offerings at the casino, hosting the Chicago metal rock group Disturbed in Hard Rock Live before some 2,200 fans at a sold-out show Nov. 4.
“Music is inherent in the brand,” said Jeff Clayton, director of entertainment at Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana. “So it’s very important to us that we have a facility here on site that represents that, and we’re very excited to bring some top-notch entertainment to the area.”
Clayton said while a rock group was first to play Hard Rock Live, music fans of every kind likely will find something to their liking as the venue works toward hosting up to four big shows every month.
“The intention is to serve all genres, all types of fans. ‘All Is One’ is part of our motto and we plan to be very diverse in that context,” Clayton said.
The Hard Rock Live space is designed to be flexible. It can hold up to 1,916 guests for a seated show, or up to 2,207 when chairs are removed from the floor and the rows of bleacher-style theater seats are pushed back into the rear wall. Besides concerts, Clayton said the smoke-free space also can be used for banquets, conventions and trade shows.
The venue features the latest lighting, noise dampening, and sound generating technology, including the Midwest’s only permanently installed L-Acoustics K2 line array system with KS28 subwoofers and KIVA-II front fill.
“It’s highly sought after by touring acts,” Clayton said. “I think it’s going to be a very, very good space both for the audience and for the artists who host their performances in here.”
A NEW RIVALRY
Beyond its new facility, Hard Rock disrupted Northwest Indiana’s casino industry a second way this year by promptly challenging the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond for market dominance.
Data released in June by the Indiana Gaming Commission (IGC) showed the new Gary casino earned $20.6 million in “win,” or revenue after paying successful bettors, during the 18 days it was open for VIP guests and the general public in the month of May.
In comparison, the Horseshoe Casino reported $38 million in win over 31 days in May, giving it an average daily win just $82,251 ahead of the Hard Rock.
IGC records show this was the first time in years any Northwest Indiana casino came anywhere close to challenging the Horseshoe’s market leadership. The Horseshoe also usually is the top performing casino statewide.
By July, IGC records showed more money was wagered on table games at Hard Rock than any other casino in the state, including the Horseshoe Casino.
Altogether, $45.1 million was bet at Hard Rock tables in July, including $24.6 million on baccarat — a relatively simple game with a low house edge that basically has players guess which of two hands of two or three cards will add up closest to nine.
After paying successful bettors, Hard Rock recorded a July table games win of $9.3 million versus $8.2 million at the Horseshoe, according to the IGC.
Matt Schuffert, president of Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana, said he was happy the Region’s newest gaming and entertainment destination led all Indiana casinos in table game drop and win in just its second full month of operations.
“Baccarat definitely led the way, but we had strong growth in most other game types as well,” Schuffert said. “Guest feedback has been extremely positive, and I couldn’t be prouder of the job that our team is doing.”
Data show the Horseshoe retained its top statewide spot in July with $36.2 million in total win, including both table games and slot machines. Total July win at Hard Rock was $32.1 million.
In September, a true rivalry had developed between Hard Rock and Horseshoe for the top casino in Northwest Indiana.
Horseshoe, as usual, tallied Indiana’s highest win at $32.7 million in September. Hard Rock’s September win was $29.5 million, according to the IGC.
But Hard Rock once again beat Horseshoe in total table game play and win. Guests wagered $44 million at Hard Rock tables in September compared to $32.1 million at the Horseshoe, with Hard Rock topping the Horseshoe in both baccarat and blackjack play for the first time since opening its doors.
Though IGC records show money wasn’t only flowing into the coffers at the Hard Rock and Horseshoe this year.
Federal stimulus payments, shrinking unemployment counts, and rising wages helped the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago and the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City both successfully return to form as the COVID-19 pandemic receded.
The second half of the year saw additional disruptions to Northwest Indiana’s casino industry because of new competition developing outside the Region.
In South Bend, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians in August began offering live table games and traditional slot machines, instead of bingo machines, at its Four Winds Casino, after Gov. Eric Holcomb and Pokagon Chairman Matthew Wesaw inked a Tribal-State Gaming Compact that was approved in April by the Indiana General Assembly and allowed to go into effect by the U.S. Interior Department.
Under the compact, Four Winds can offer any gambling game permitted at state-regulated casinos. Though mobile sports wagering, and any other electronic gaming eventually permitted in Indiana, is limited to the 166 acres of tribal property in South Bend.
Federal law prohibits the state from taxing the tribal casino similar to a commercial casino, which in Indiana can range from 15% to 40% of win. But the tribe agreed to pay 8% of its slot machine win to Indiana in exchange for an exclusivity agreement that, in essence, freezes state gaming law within 50 miles of the Four Winds Casino, including in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
“It’s a great day to be Pokagon and we are very excited for what the future holds,” Wesaw said at the opening ceremony. “Not only is Class III gaming in Indiana a historic and important milestone for the Pokagon Band and our Four Winds Casinos, but the expansion of Four Winds South Bend will create numerous additional economic benefits with the state of Indiana and the city of South Bend.”
Across the state line, the Illinois Gaming Board also finally began whittling down the competitors for a south suburban Cook County casino license that was authorized by the 2019 Illinois General Assembly.
Applications for the license were submitted two years ago by casino companies seeking to locate in Calumet City, Homewood, Lynwood, and Matteson.
Following an Oct. 13 daylong hearing, the Illinois Gaming Board voted unanimously to eliminate Calumet City and Lynwood from the competition based on the quality of each proposal and its development timeline, along with the commitment of the community to the casino project as well as the casino company’s commitment to the community.
The board expects to make a final decision in early 2022. The two remaining proposals are:
Homewood (Wind Creek Illinois Casino) — $440 million casino and luxury hotel with 1,350 slot machines and 56 table games in a new 70,000-square foot gaming space immediately south of Interstate 80-294 at Halsted Street. High-rise hotel would have 252 rooms, 53 suites, and an outdoor skybar with views of downtown Chicago. Second hotel and expansion to 2,000 slot machines planned for Phase II, sometime after casino opens in mid-2023. No temporary casino.
Matteson (Unnamed Casino) — $300 million casino project with 1,300 slot machines and 42 table games located in a 123,000 square foot building at the former Lincoln Mall site at U.S. 30 and Cicero Avenue. A 200 room hotel and expansion to 1,950 slots may be added in possible Phase II. Temporary casino at nearby Holiday Inn convention center to open within six months of licensing. Permanent facility by mid-2023.
A second Illinois casino competition began in November when the city of Chicago received five proposals from four different companies to develop a casino-resort and entertainment destination using the single gaming license assigned to Chicago in 2019 by Illinois state lawmakers.
According to the mayor’s office, the four casino companies interested in developing a Chicago casino are:
- Bally’s Corp., which submitted proposals for two different sites.
- HR Chicago, an affiliate of Hard Rock International, which submitted a proposal for a single site.
- Rivers Chicago at McCormick LLC for a single casino site managed by Rush Street Gaming LLC.
- Rivers 78 Gaming for a single site managed by Rush Street Gaming LLC.
A review committee comprising a cross-section of city departments is evaluating the casino proposals and will recommended a winning bidder in the months ahead.
That recommendation will be taken into consideration by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago city council before they select the winner.
The Chicago casino is expected to be located in the downtown area to attract the highest number of potential guests.
Illinois law permits up to 4,000 gaming positions at the facility, or about one-third more slot machines and table games than the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.
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