Despite chilly temperatures, thousands of people were expected to start lining up outside Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati before its doors are set to open at 8:30 p.m.
Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory has already hailed the $400 million downtown casino as a home run for the city, although projected revenues are far lower now than when Ohio voters approved four casinos in 2009.
"This casino will have the ability to draw people from all around the country," Mallory said. "This is a top-line casino, and the people who are accustomed to the big casinos in Vegas, they're not going to miss anything here."
Though no hotels are attached, and nothing quite compares to the energy or spectacle of the Vegas strip, Mallory said the Cincinnati casino is big time. What once was a run-down parking lot is now a bustling spot that includes a buffet, a VIP players' lounge with limits as high as $50,000, a World Series of Poker room and three outward-facing restaurants, including Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and a burger joint by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Both Buffett and Flay also have outposts in Las Vegas.
Flay, who was in Cincinnati for the opening of the 14th Bobby's Burger Place, said the casino felt just like Vegas.
He said when Caesars Entertainment approached him, he hesitated at first since all the other Bobby's Burgers are in the Northeast. But he said he was attracted to Cincinnati's burgeoning food scene and the bustle of a casino.
"When you build a structure like this, obviously there's something good going on here," Flay said inside the casino. "I think it's incredible. It's a Vegas casino. I've seen some other regional casinos and they're not even close to this."
Flay said he will see how his first Cincinnati location does, and then will consider opening more locations in the city and Kentucky, in particular Louisville or Lexington.
Cincinnati's casino is projected to draw about $227 million in gross revenue in its first year. That would bring in about $75 million in taxes.
Casinos in Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus all opened over the past year and have brought in nearly $404 million combined. From that, about $133.2 million has gone to Ohio schools, counties and cities.
Ohio voters approved the casinos in 2009 after a statewide campaign touted the immediate boost the casinos would give to Ohio's economy.
Officials and casino executives in two neighboring states are looking at Cincinnati's casino with trepidation as they prepare to watch tax dollars flow from their states into Ohio.
Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati is all but guaranteed to dip into Indiana's casino revenues, which have steadily declined in the past few years. For Kentucky, Cincinnati's casino represents money that it could be, but isn't, making, as that state's governor has failed to get casino gambling approved since taking office in 2007.
Ohio's attempts to legalize casinos failed four times previously.
The 2009 issue won approval after proponents lamented tax dollars going to Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia, and said that casinos in Ohio's four largest cities would create tens of thousands of jobs and boost the economy.
Opponents of Ohio's casinos largely consisted of groups that criticized revenue predictions as inflated and pointed to the societal ills of gambling, including addictions that leave some destitute. They also criticized Ohio's 33 percent tax rate on the casinos for being lower than some other states.
Ohio's casinos were original forecast to bring in nearly $2 billion annually. Now, their yearly revenues are now expected to be just under $1 billion.
Industry experts say the lower revenues are a result of the economic climate and competition from storefront gambling-style operations in the state known as Internet cafes.