Rock Ohio Caesars may not have any new casinos to open in 2014 but year brings important decisions

CLEVELAND - After back-to-back years that saw Rock Ohio Caesars (ROC) open three gambling facilities in Ohio with Horseshoe Casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati followed by the opening of ThistleDown Racino in North Randall, you would think 2014 might be a quiet year and it may very well be but the casino operator has a number of key decisions to make about the direction it plans to take with several casino projects and local properties.

The casino operator acquired, at auction Tuesday, the Stanley Block Building on Ontario, which stood before its demolition smack dab in the middle of the casino’s parking garage and welcome center.

Ohio Mothership, LLC an affiliate of Rock Ohio Caesars was the winning bidder for the site at 2121 Ontario St. which went at auction for $350,000. Rock Gaming spokesperson Jennifer Kulczycki said they have no immediate plans for the now vacant site.

Not surprising since the casino has decisions to make with other spaces including the one immediately next door to the Block Building lot at the corner of Ontario and Prospect.

Original plans called for the corner street level space under the new walkway and next to the casino’s welcome center gift shop to be used as a 24 hour diner. Those plans were later scrapped when the casino determined it wasn’t feasible.

Those spaces though pale in comparison to the purchase made last year by Rock Ohio Caesars of the Higbee Building itself. The casino had been leasing the first four floors of the landmark former department store from Forest City Enterprises but in August of last year purchased the 13 story building outright.

At the time Rock announced that expansion options for some of the other floors were in the development phase.

Another major decision facing Rock in the coming months is what to do with their ThistleDown Racino property. Under the 2011 deal with the state allowing video lottery terminals at the state’s seven horse racing tracks Rock Ohio Caesars holds the option of moving the track from North Randall to the Akron-Canton area.

That decision is due by June.

ROC would have to pay the state a fee of $25 million for the move and then spend $150 million to buy land and build a new racino. It’s that or stay in Cuyahoga County where they already own the land and track and have invested close to $90 million in opening the racino.

The biggest of all decisions though may very well be the one often most asked about, Phase II.

Since the decision was announced in February, 2011 to open Phase I in the Higbee Building the plan was always to compliment it with a new state of the art gambling space along Huron Road on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

When the Horseshoe opened in May of 2012, owner Dan Gilbert was adamant that Phase II would go forward. “We paid $85 million for the land we’re certainly not going to sit there and watch weeds grown on it,” he said.

It was a commitment he reinforced a year later at the Horseshoe’s first anniversary.  

"Phase II is absolutely going to happen and we're more excited about that than Phase I," Gilbert said in May, 2013.

At the time he said they were in engineering and design talks for the new casino but were still studying the market to see what casino customers wanted in a new property and what they would support.

And it is the market that is influencing these decisions most. While it's been 21 months since the Horseshoe Cleveland opened its doors, the gambling market in Northeast Ohio has been in flux with the opening of ThistleDown last April and the Hard Rock Rocksino in December.

Rock Ohio Caesars said there are no announcements planned on Phase II at this point.

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