2 months from this week, Casino Aztar will be celebrating their 16th anniversary in the River City. For some, it seems like just yesterday when they were waiting for the boat to come around the bend from Jeffersonville/New Albany, Indiana. For others, it seems like an eternity ago.
However you feel about the duration of the past 16 years, one thing is for sure, our local government is failing Casino Aztar. There's no question that the arrival of Aztar has done many good things for our town, especially our failing downtown. As soon as the boat arrived, Evansville began asking Aztar, "What can you do for us?"
Despite city government failing to build around Aztar, we have seen many great things come from the casino...
"...Aztar has pumped almost $200 million into its host city's budget in taxes and lease payments and brought millions more in tourism dollars during its 15-year run. It has also given more than $60 million to the county and more than $320 million to the state in tax revenue, according to a 15-year impact study Aztar released earlier this week.
According to an annual study commissioned by the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau, visitors spent more than $356 million in 2009 while in the city. Without Aztar's presence, the study concluded that figure would drop more than $120 million."
According to the article, some of those funds have gone to various projects such as...
-Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden
-some funds for the new Downtown arena
-more police cars and other public safety initiatives
-$1.8 million for the LST 325 dock
-$2 million for the Koch Family Children's Museum of Evansville
-$1 million for the Evansville African American Museum.
Right off the bat, we've got several problems with our use of Aztar Funds.
1. Evansville only gets around 11% of Aztar's tax dollars. The rest is wasted on Vanderburgh County and the State of Indiana.
2. Although some of the projects have been needed such as police safety and zoo compliance upgrades, none of these projects are anything to write home about. Tourists still go to Indianapolis for a children's museum, and they still go to Greensboro, NC, Montgomery & Selma, AL, and Memphis, TN for African American history. In other words, we picked projects we do not have a competitive advantage in.
3. None of those projects are located next to the Aztar complex. The article above tells us that Casino Aztar is our number one tourist draw. Shouldn't that be the location of our investments?
Last week, Ward Shaw, who is general manager of Casino Aztar, appeared on Newsmakers and gave us these quotes...
Shaw: Aztar is very unique compared to most local riverboat sort of gaming jurisdictions that you see throughout the Midwest and in the South and that most of these riverboat casinos are placed in locations to help with economic development. That is the main attraction for governments to allow them to come into their communities. A lot of these are in areas that are very industrial or there is a lot of economic blight.
Having Casino Aztar in downtown Evansville is a blessing we must take advantage of. It should no longer be acceptable to have Casino Aztar and Mulzer Stone as neighbors (I will talk about the solution in a minute). No one wants to visit a city that is a one-trick pony. If we want to recruit new visitors as well as retain the same visitors, we must upgrade our entertainment district. That is required to compete in a capitalist economy.
Compared to some of our other locations within our company or some of our competitors, we sit here in a really attractive, very visually-pleasing, easy-to-access location for our customers, guests and team members. We are in a beautiful little bend in the river right next to Downtown. It is a very scenic riverfront park walkway, and there a things to do within walking distance of Downtown. It makes our entertainment destination a little more well rounded than just a stand alone casino that is maybe five miles out in the middle of a very industrial area.
Mr. Shaw is correct about the location, but incorrect on the district around the casino. Casino Aztar and its restaurants are surrounded by a stone plant, an adult entertainment store, and a few high rise corporate offices. We can do better than that!
Kentucky is much more close to home for us. It is yet to be seen what the impact of the instant racing machines that look like will go in across the river here and later on this year will have on us. The concern there though is, what is the next step after that? Is that just a precursor to a more expanding gaming opportunity in Kentucky? With the proximity of Ellis Park, that would be a huge concern for our business.
Further proof that we need to make plans for the surrounding district and we need to do it NOW. We cannot afford to have our casino lose business to Kentucky and Ellis Park. Time after time, Evansville has felt sorry for itself and refused to improve itself. If we let this happen again, we will be sacrificing our one point of light. Do we really want to do that?
With all of that being said, what is the solution to fixing this problem? To me, that answer is one of the easiest answers to any of our problems here in Evansville. We must bring back the 2001 master plan. Why bring it back?
1. A ballpark will bring in over a million visitors to the Aztar district. It will also account for 1,000 to 1,300 hotel room nights each season. The ballpark district around the ballpark will enhance and compliment the already existing Aztar district.
2. A canal that will go parallel to John Street from Pigeon Creek to First Avenue will connect the Aztar district to the arena and convention center district.
3. A marina will bring in tourists who want to take on the mighty Ohio River while enjoying the Aztar night life at the same time.
4. Placing the LST at the Port of Evansville will bring in tourists to the area who will stay at Aztar's hotels. It will also pull the historic ship away from Ellis Park which will be a future competitor.
5. Moving Ohio Street so that it connects with 1st street instead of 2nd street will bring motorists closer to the Aztar district while allowing us to fill in the area between the ballpark, the LST, and the canal with a ballpark village.
The problem we have is that we are being selfish instead of working to build Evansville together. Our local government is only concerned about what they can get out of Aztar not what we can do to help Aztar and our city grow as one.
If we are going to be successful, we need to ask what we can do for Casino Aztar and our downtown Evansville, not what they can do for us!
Imagine a canal to the north of Aztar, a marina, LST, and ballpark to the west of Aztar, and a ballpark village in between. Can you name a city Evansville's size that could compete with that? I sure can't.
Some of you may be saying, " Well that's great but our city is broke." Although our city is broke, this problem needs to be solved by spending our money wisely. When you take into account expanding Green River Road, Millersburg Road, Oak Hill Road, the Lloyd Expressway at Fulton, and a few other roads, the bill goes OVER $100 million.
We need to spend our Aztar money to build around Aztar by doing the following...
-$30 million ballpark
-$35 million canal
- $5 million Port of Evansville & LST
The rest of the funds should be used to construct the marina and slack water port. By building the slack water port, which would have to come first, we will be able to clear Mulzer Stone, IMI Concrete, and Tekoppel Block off the land without losing their business. It will be a win-win for both sides.
So instead of wasting money expanding roads that will just cause urban sprawl and increase government spending on city services, why don't we do the right thing and invest in our Casino Aztar district who has done so much for us these past 16 years?
Do the right thing, INVEST AROUND CASINO AZTAR!