GARY, Ind., June 17 (UPI) -- My vision of Gary, Ind. -- like most people visiting for the first time -- is forever influenced by Robert Preston's singing of the song "Gary, Indiana" in "The Music Man." The song doesn't really DESCRIBE Gary, but somehow you get the impression it's the essence of Hometown, USA, a bucolic friendly place where mothers are exalted and the Fourth of July parade is full of babies dressed up like Uncle Sam.
What I forgot is that Robert Preston's character, Dr. Harold Hill, is a con man.
Although things are looking up lately, Gary has historically been the ultimate Rust Belt city, the location of the original blast furnaces of U.S. Steel and a sweltering, grimy place that was the first stop for impoverished Poles, Romanians, Serbs and Hungarians trying to make it in the New World.
Earlier this month Gary's most famous native, Michael Jackson, was here to announce a new performing arts center that will be named after him, and while they were at it, the street of his boyhood home was renamed Jackson Street. (It was a safe choice for the city. After all, if Jackson continues to crash and burn, they can say it was named for Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, or any other number of Jacksons who figure in American history.) The boyhood home is not a pretty sight. Gary is the kind of city that you enjoy coming back to only after you escape.
That's why, when the Indiana legislature was passing out
gambling licenses in the early nineties, they gave them to the
most distressed cities in the state -- and Gary was the only city to get two. The two riverboat casinos in Gary, Trump and Majestic Star, share a pavilion on Lake Michigan, where they're docked in a place called Buffington Harbor.
Every effort has been made to emotionally and physically
separate Buffington Harbor from the steel mills and mean streets of Gary, mostly by floral landscaping and a large green zone that cuts off the casino neighborhood from the rest of the city. These are very basic casinos in a less than optimal location, so what's strange is that Donald Trump owns one of them. The man known for opulence and excess -- both at his Atlantic City casinos like the Taj Mahal, and his New York skyscrapers like Trump Tower -- is represented here by one of the most unprepossessing gambling joints in the nation. It's little more than a slots joint on water, complete with the requisite dingy purple carpet.
Not that they're not trying. They have a brand spanking new 300-room hotel with views of Lake Michigan (although the views of this part of Lake Michigan are not exactly scenic), and they have . . . uh . . . well . . . that's about it.
What's odd about the setup here is that normally "casino
clusters" are the way to go. Given the choice between a free-
standing casino in the middle of nowhere, and two or three
casinos bunched together in the middle of nowhere, the customer
almost always heads for the cluster. Or at least that's true in
Atlantic City, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other riverboat
Gary is different. Trump and Majestic Star consistently rank last in revenues among the nine Chicagoland casinos, and close to the bottom for all of Indiana. There are five casinos on Lake Michigan, and the market leader -- the Horseshoe in Hammond -- more than doubles the business of Trump. For some reason having two casinos in Gary resulted in splitting the market instead of augmenting it. People regard Buffington Harbor as a single casino, and they constantly troop back and forth between Trump and Majestic Star -- it's just 40 feet from one entrance to the other -- which further hurts the casinos because they're required to pay the state a $3 "boarding fee" every time a customer enters.
"This is a very competitive market," says Nicholas Africano, the former director of Chicago's famous Navy Pier who left there to become Manager of Marketing & Advertising at Trump. "We do a lot of direct mail marketing. We try to win them over with service."
And with cash and coupons, of course. The main thing Trump
has to sell is that it's the largest "ticket-in, ticket-out"
slots operation in Indiana or Illinois. Of the 1725 slot machines on board, 1115 of them are "cashless." The way it works is that you stuff cash into the machine, and if you win, it pays you with a ticket. The ticket can be used to play another machine, or you can take it to a kiosk, stick it in one of those bill-breaker devices, and it will give you your winnings.
But what about the highly satisfying sound of hundreds of
coins clanking into the metal tray?
"That's why they aren't ALL ticket-in, ticket-out," says
Jackie Pinner, Director of Marketing. "There will always be
players who want the actual coins."
What this indicates is that Trump is a place for older
gamblers, aged 50 and up, who want to pump those slot machines
FAST. They do have table games as well, but the card and dice
business is pretty much sewed up by the Horseshoe, which attracts all the high-limit real gamblers.
The entertainment options are virtually non-existent here,
mainly due to lack of facilities. Trump has a ballroom that seats 300, and the two casinos share another facility that can hold 500, but there's not likely to be anything bigger built for many years to come. Indiana has some of the highest gambling taxes in the nation, with an effective rate of 37 percent on the gross in addition to the $3 boarding fee, and that makes it a market where you have to count nickels and skimp on amenities.
Most of the restaurants at Trump fail to rise above the
level of a shopping-mall food court, with the exception being a
steakhouse (called Chops) in the hotel. The only food on the boat itself is served at the Top Deck Deli, which is mostly sandwiches and salads.
Gary, on the other hand, is coming into its own as a result of the windfall gambling revenue of the past decade. The city has made major improvements at the Genesis Convention Center which, thanks to Donald Trump, is now the site of the annual Miss USA Pageant. They also have a beautiful new 5,800-seat baseball stadium, built at a cost of $45 million for the Gary SouthShore RailCats, who play in the Northern League.
The steel factories that once produced girders for the
Golden Gate and Verrazano Narrows bridges are still here. (The
city is named, by the way, for Judge Elbert H. Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel, who founded the city as a place for his employees after completing construction of the largest steel plant in the world in 1909.) The U.S. Steel plant today is Gary Works, the flagship plant of the USS Division of USX Corp., with 57 production units on 4,000 acres, but the city's largest employer is Unilever. The skyline of the city is still blast furnaces, although obviously the steel business has seen better days.
Gary's population declined 12 percent in the 1990s to about
103,000. That makes it the largest city on the Indiana lakefront, but it's not the American-dream magnet it once was.
It's a shame that the casino cities of northwestern Indiana never got a chance to develop the lakefront as anything other than lots for tall buildings and factories. The city's waterfront is actually buffered by the Indiana Dunes, celebrated by Carl Sandburg, and a few miles east of Gary they can still be seen in all their natural splendor.
Gary, in other words, covered up its natural beauty long
ago. As I was leaving I remembered why Dr. Harold Hill sings
"Gary, Indiana" in the first place. He thinks things are not
going well with his attempts to seduce Marian the Librarian,
prettiest girl in River City, Iowa, so he decides to charm her
mother. He wants to seem like All-American husband material, so
he sings affectionately of "the town that knew me when" in an
effort to assert his solid small-town roots.
"The Music Man" is set in the year 1910. Gary was founded in 1909 and was just starting to build permanent housing in 1910. If the town had really known him when, he would have had to live with the Potawatomi Indians.
But it's still a tradition to embellish a little bit when
you talk about Gary. The Gary Chamber of Commerce today bills the city as "the largest United States city founded in the 20th
century." It's an interesting claim to make, but a city shored up financially by two casinos probably should have picked another superlative: Las Vegas was founded in 1905.
E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at www.joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.
sidebar . . .
TRUMP CASINO HOTEL
1 Buffington Harbor, Gary, Ind.
Theme: Generic Riverboat
Total investment: $175 million
Known for: Packing in the slots players
Marketing niche: Chicago day-trippers, including bus lines
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Slow
Rare games: None.
Surrounding area: Next door to the competing Majestic Star. Otherwise steel mills, foundries, freeways, railway tracks, and a bleak stretch of Lake Michigan
Web site: trumplakemichigan.com
Overall rating: 52
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $40 after a slipping a couple of
twenties into a very tight "Betty Boop" machine: total to date