Belterra's Opening Act

Belterra to offer wide range
of amenities, entertainment, dining

Indiana’s newest casino adds touch
of class to enter competitive market

By Don Ward

FLORENCE, Ind. – John Spina steps cautiously over concrete blocks and mounds of dirt and construction debris as he negotiates the maze of activity at what will soon will become Indiana’s 10th casino complex.
Before him, a 15-story, 308-room hotel rises above the dust and clatter of bulldozers and dump trucks manipulating dirt and steel into place. The structure’s yellow walls and tinted windows tower over the nearby Ohio River, where a canal has been created to accommodate Belterra Resort and Casino’s newly built riverboat casino.

Belterra Casino

The boat is scheduled to arrive Aug. 1 from Mobile, Ala., after a two-week trip up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Pending approval by the Indiana Gaming Commission, the casino will open to the public on Aug. 24, just in time for the “Belterra 300” Indy car race, to be held Aug. 27 at the Kentucky Speedway.
“It’s really going to be something when it’s done,” says Spina, 50, as he points out future locations of the complex’s five restaurants, retail shops, VIP rooms, 1,500-seat theater, spa and golf pro shop.
Upstairs, every hotel room is being equipped with a whirlpool jacuzzi bath and separate shower, plus a TV in both the bedroom and bathroom. The cost to rent a room will start at around $80 a night.
Spina, Belterra’s affable vice president and general manager, has been involved in four other casino openings and brings vast experience to the Belterra project. After earning accounting and MBA degrees at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, Spina worked as a certified public accountant for Peat Marwick (now KPMG). The New Jersey native has spent the past 20 years in the casino industry and calls Belterra “a dream project” because of its level of scope and class.
Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. officials broke ground on the $165 million, 270-acre project in July 1999 before hundreds of local residents and dignitaries from Switzerland and neighboring counties. Since then, construction has continued at a rapid pace, while Belterra executives have rushed to hire managers and employees at all levels.
Finding nearly 1,500 people at a time when jobs are plentiful and workers are not has been among the biggest challenges. The task also requires training new employees to work in the casino industry as dealers, cage operators, floor managers and other specialized jobs. Belterra needs some 200 supervisors and managers alone.
It takes four to eight weeks, depending on the game, of intensive training to become a casino dealer. It is a highly lucrative profession but requires certain mental skills.
Traditional jobs, such as those in security or hotel and restaurants management, are just as important to enable Belterra to provide the level of service its guests will expect, Spina says.
Belterra officials also have been busily marketing their new project to the region through advertising and sponsorships of various events, such as last month’s Madison Regatta, the Kentucky Speedway’s upcoming Indy car race and Vevay’s Swiss Wine Festival, also this month. Such alliances are designed to create name awareness and, in some cases, build a database of people whom casino officials may target in future direct mail campaigns.
As part of its promotions, Belterra gave away a personal watercraft at the Madison Regatta and plans to give away a car in September. The car promotion will begin at the Kentucky Speedway race.
As the last of four riverboat casinos opening in southern Indiana since the 1993 state law to legalize gambling was passed, Belterra is gearing to attract customers by offering as much variety as possible, officials say.
Belterra also will become the only casino in southern Indiana to offer free admission to customers. Indiana’s five Lake Michigan boats offer free admission, but the southern Indiana boats charge $5 to $9 per session. Regardless of who funds it, Indiana casinos must pay a $3 per person admission tax to the state.
“Because of the competition from the other boats nearby, and perhaps because they are the last boat to open, Belterra seems to want as many amenities in place as possible when it opens,” said Jack Thar, executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission, which enforces state laws regulating legalized gambling.
“A lot of the boats have opened before they have these things going. It’s just up to each individual company.”
He noted that Caesar's Glory of Rome Casino in Harrison County, Ind. just recently broke ground on its hotel after opening in November 1998.
In recent months, Belterra also has been working hard to become involved in the community. In addition to the thousands of dollars it has provided to Switzerland and neighboring counties for various projects as part of the development agreement, casino officials last month bought $8,000 worth of farm animals at the county fair, trained 18 area volunteer firemen and helped fund a new firehouse in Florence, Ind.
They gave $400,000 to the local 4-H club and have provided money to the Switzerland County School Corp. for use of the cafeteria this summer to feed employees. The school conveniently sits just across the road from the Ogle Haus, which the casino company bought last year to serve as a temporary staging area for its employees.
Officials later closed the Ogle Haus restaurant and has been using the kitchen to train Belterra chefs.
A financial arrangement was made with local tourism officials to provide temporary income to the county in lieu of a bed tax that would have been generated from the Ogle Haus. The future use of the Ogle Haus has not been decided, Spina said, but it will likely be used to house newly arriving employees, since the county is experiencing a severe housing shortage.
Tourism dollars, meanwhile, are expected to begin pouring in once the casino and hotel open.
When the casino does open this month, there will still be some areas of the project unfinished. Some restaurants and the theater will not be ready to open this month, Spina said. By December, however, Belterra will begin booking top-caliber acts at what Spina called “the best designed theater in the region.”
The top floor of the hotel, which will feature 11 executive-class suites renting for $200 a night, will be ready about two weeks after the casino’s initial opening. The Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole golf course is schedule to open in September 2001.
“It will just add to the excitement later when these amenties open,” Spina said.
Construction on the golf course has started, and workers have been relocating trees and seeding the ground for fall. A $300,000 tunnel under Hwy. 156 is being built to allow golf carts to access the course from the pro shop, located on the western side of the hotel complex.
All in all, Spina says the project is on schedule and has faced no major obstacles during the construction phase. Executives and employees were scheduled to begin moving into their new offices at the site during the first week of August. By then, the boat will have arrived and casino employees will have begun the final weeks of training in preparation for the Indiana Gaming Commission’s arrival Aug. 21 to inspect, observe and, Belterra executives hope, grant them a license to begin operating by week’s end.
“After all this time, it’s great to finally be getting to the point of opening,” Spina said. “Now if the rest of the process will go as smoothly, we’ll be in good shape.”
Gaming industry, opponents spar over cruise restrictions
By Don Ward
FLORENCE, Ind. – Whether you favor or oppose it, one thing is certain: Legalized gambling is here to stay.
Today, the most divisive issue between the legalized gambling industry and its opponents is over the expansion of gambling, not only in Indiana but throughout the nation.
In Indiana, however, the issue has been pushed even harder by the gaming industry since Illinois last year lifted the law that required its riverboats to cruise. Casino revenues have risen more than 30 percent since dockside gambling went into effect, industry analysts say, while business has noticeably dropped at Indiana’s five Lake Michigan riverboat casinos. This competitive disadvantage between the two states has emphasized the need for Indiana legislators to remove its forced cruising law, casino industry officials say.
Currently, all Indiana boats must cruise in two-hour sessions, with strict enforcement of boarding times. Inclement weather often prevents the boats from cruising, but boarding times are still enforced.
“It’s crazy. Why not let people come and go as they please?” says John Spina, vice president and general manager of Belterra Resort and Casino.
Several bills designed to lift the cruising law were introduced during the last Indiana General Assembly, but none received a committee hearing. The bills had been supported by the Casino Association of Indiana, a lobby group representing the state’s floating casinos.
“The Indiana gaming industry and the state of Indiana are partners in economic development,” explains Cheryl DeVol-Glowinski, the group’s executive director. “We have seen that where casinos have gone in, the communities have been greatly helped, and that was the original purpose of gaming in Indiana.”
Gambling opponents, meanwhile, are pressuring lawmakers to maintain the cruise restriction to keep the lid on gambling expansion. The Indiana arm of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling is asking lawmakers for a statewide referendum on legalized gambling.
The group also is polling state legislators about their stands on gambling with plans of publicizing those views prior to the upcoming election.
“We want everyone to know where their politicians stand on this issue,” said John Wolf, a retired United Methodist minister from Valparaiso, Ind., who leads the Indiana group.
In addition to dockside gambling at riverboats, the group is fighting the passage of laws allowing slot machines or video poker machines at horse tracks. The group also opposes allowing automatic teller bank machines and credit card services at gambling operations in the state.
Wolf has been fighting legalized gambling at all levels even before the 1993 legalized gambling law was passed in Indiana. His group’s most recent struggle has been against Indian tribes that have been trying to move into three northeastern Indiana counties near South Bend for the past three years.
Anti-gambling forces successfully kept legalized gambling from passing in Wolf’s home county, Porter, but riverboats now operate on both sides, in Gary and Michigan City.
In southern Indiana, his group claims success for twice keeping legalized
bank machines and credit card services at gambling operations in the state.
Wolf has been fighting legalized gambling at all levels even before the 1993 legalized gambling law was passed in Indiana. His group’s most recent struggle has been against Indian tribes that have been trying to move into three northeastern Indiana counties near South Bend for the past three years.
Anti-gambling forces successfully kept legalized gambling from passing in Wolf’s home county, Porter, but riverboats now operate on both sides, in Gary and Michigan City.
In southern Indiana, his group claims success for twice keeping legalized gambling from passing in Floyd and Clark counties. Caesar’s Glory of Rome Casino operates next door, however, in Harrison County.
Wolf says local business owners and townspeople around the country are being fooled into believing that gambling will increase business profits and lifestyles in their communities. He sees the same thing happening now in Vevay, Ind., where in 1941 he served as minister of Ruter Chapel United Methodist Church.
“We want people in these communities to understand that the riverboats don’t create wealth, they simply transfer it,” said Wolf, who added that it usually takes two to three years before the impact is felt on local businesses.
Vevay area business people, meanwhile, express cautious optimism about their new riverboat casino and admit that Belterra’s immediate cash infusion into Switzerland County is hard to ignore.
County tourism board member Jerry Brown says he is “optimistic it will benefit the county” but expects “an overload on our infrastructure,” referring to the roads and water system.
“I’m hoping the money coming from the boat will outweigh any disadvantages,” Brown said.
Mike Danner of Danner’s Hardware and Home Furnishings said he’s already noticed a difference in his business and believes Belterra will significantly lower the county’s unemployment rate and provide high wages.
“We’re positive on it,” he said. “With the loss in tobacco income and some factory closing in recent years, we needed something to pick up the difference. Belterra has been here operating and training employees, and they’ve been a good customer and neighbor during the construction phase.”
Danner said he expects more traffic problems in Vevay, since there is only a two-lane road running through town. But he hopes that, in time, state officials will recognize the area’s growing need for more roadways to accommodate people traveling to Belterra and to the new Kentucky Speedway via Markland Dam.
“The infrastructure in Vevay – sewers, water and utilities – needs to be upgraded, and now we’re going to have the money to do it,” Danner said. “So I see a big positive impact coming to our county indirectly from the casino boat.”

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