Gambling next big industry for steel towns - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin laments the fact that in the late 1980s the former steel town could have been the first U.S. city outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City to get casino gambling.

The Ohio Legislature rejected the issue, and Lorain has continued to struggle to replace lost steel and shipping jobs.

Lorain is looking to lure gambling again, but this time is following the pack as cities throughout the Rust Belt have turned to gambling as a way to compensate for the shrinking steel industry.

Most steel towns have either had gambling for years (Weirton, W.Va.), are in the process of getting it (Pittsburgh) or are pursuing it (Cleveland and Lorain).

Urban centers considering gambling are usually strapped for cash and seek it as a last resort, said Milton Leontiades, dean of the Rutgers University School of Business at Camden, N.J.

Not so, says Jerry Austin, a political consultant to Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell. He said the citys pursuit of casino gambling isnt desperation but part of an economic development strategy.

While the city is pursuing jobs in areas like health care and biotechnology, he said, gambling can provide something else no other industry can - a huge influx of jobs under one roof.

"Theres no big companies with 3,000 to 5,000 jobs coming into Cleveland," Austin said. "Were not building a Nissan plant in downtown Cleveland."

Because of the states longtime stance against gambling, Cleveland is pushing for a home-rule amendment to the Ohio Constitution that would allow cities to vote on casinos. Lorain is working with the Oklahoma-based Eastern Shawnee tribe, which wants to open casinos and recently sued to regain land it says was illegally taken in 19th century treaties.

Foltin, who has been Lorains mayor since 2000, said a casino would provide an anchor for an entertainment complex at a city-owned riverfront site that was formerly home to an ore and coal facility.

"We firmly believe its a positive thing," Foltin said. "It depends how you do it. You cant paint every steel town with the same brush."

Former Weirton Mayor Dean Harris says dont do it their way.

He says the region has benefited from the addition of slot machines at nearby Mountaineer Race Track, which enabled it to become a destination resort.

But the states approval in 2001 of video poker machines in bars and restaurants was a mistake, Harris said. The city of 20,000 has about 600 machines at 98 locations.

"The city has become over-saturated with these places," he said. "Maybe on a limited basis it would have been OK. Its like one opens every day."

Harris, a steelworker of 30 years, said the machines havent created jobs and have led other businesses to close to become video poker sites.

"We have a car wash that used to be a car wash that is now an establishment with these machines in it," he said.

Gambling would literally take over steel in Bethlehem, Pa., which is considering a slots parlor that would incorporate and preserve the shuttered Bethlehem Steel mill.

Bethlehem residents dont want another Atlantic City - just two hours away - where casinos havent led to many offshoot businesses, said Judith Lasker, professor of sociology and anthropology at Lehigh University.

"People are kind of mixed," Lasker said. "They want to see something happen on this property and the neighborhood around it revived, but theyre very concerned about the moral and economic influence of casino gambling."

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