Gary Bets Big On New Hard Rock Casino, But Will It Pay Off?

Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana
A guitar-smash officially opened the new Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary this month. Local officials are betting that this latest venture will provide more jobs and revenue for the city. Courtesy of Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana
Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana
A guitar-smash officially opened the new Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary this month. Local officials are betting that this latest venture will provide more jobs and revenue for the city. Courtesy of Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana

Gary Bets Big On New Hard Rock Casino, But Will It Pay Off?

Twenty-one people, from pop stars to state lawmakers, each grabbed a black guitar and smashed them at noon last Friday.

The moment marked the official opening of the Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary, the Chicago area’s 10th casino and the first in Indiana to be based on land.

“The location is phenomenal. But the brand and the property is going to separate itself from the rest of the market,” said Matt Schuffert, president of the 200-square-foot, $325 million casino.

The glitzy, Las Vegas-style Hard Rock Casino opens with the country still in a pandemic and in a crowded Northwest Indiana market — along with the possibility of gambling in Chicago just over the stateline from this Rust Belt city. That competition could mean trouble as city officials are hoping the casino will bring in much-needed revenue, but the owners are optimistic.

“This is an incredible opportunity for the city of Gary. For them to have what is being built, and the team and the brand and the facility that is going to be in the city of Gary, these are exciting times,” Schuffert said.

Gary’s exciting times started three decades ago when Indiana lawmakers first approved gambling in the state. Casinos were only allowed if they were on water.

Gary was the first city in Indiana to get casinos in 1996, with two riverboat-style gambling ships on Lake Michigan’s southern shore, including one owned by Donald Trump.

Those first casinos brought millions to a city starving for new investment following decades of decay.

Hard Rock Casino
The guitar-smash moment that officially opened the Hard Rock Casino in Gary. Courtesy of Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana

“When the boats came in, it was a job creator,” said Scott King, who was Gary’s mayor the year the boats arrived. “The funds, the city’s share of revenues generated, be for capital expenditures, equipment purchases, construction, demolition.”

The city purchased new police cars and fire equipment, fixed some streets and made needed infrastructure repairs.

But moves by state lawmakers, including giving huge tax breaks to U.S. Steel and changes to how property taxes were assessed, dramatically decreased the amount property taxes collected.

Gary was forced to use its casino revenues to shore up its sagging operating budget.

“As time marched on, this capital funding source really, really got diminished because of actions by the state legislature,” King said. “The bloom faded somewhat, in a fairly short period of time.”

Since casinos were introduced to Gary, they’ve generated $381 million for the city, according to figures obtained from the Indiana State Budget Agency.

King, who left office in 2006, said he still sees casinos as a good thing for the city, even if the revenues are spent on items that aren’t visible to the public like improving its long-suffering downtown, which still has some of the same vacant buildings as it did in 1996.

He fears, however, that money may not always be there.

“Is it a good thing to have? Yes it is. This isn’t going to be a magical fix for everything,” King said. “I remain concerned for all of Northwest Indiana on the casino revenue side, with the development of casinos in Chicago.”

And that’s the elephant in the room: If Chicago gets a casino, how will it impact Northwest Indiana’s cash-cow industry by luring away customers?

Ed Feigenbaum, who covers gaming for Indiana Gaming Insight, said Hard Rock Casino is entering a very competitive but uncertain marketplace. There are long-established operations nearby, including Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ameristar in East Chicago, Blue Chip in Michigan City and not too far to the east in New Buffalo, Mich., home to another land-based operation, Four Winds Casino.

Not to mention the five Chicago-area casinos, with two more being considered.

Plus, online sports betting is making brick and mortar casinos everywhere work harder, said Feigenbaum.

“Now that you’ve got gaming literally on every corner and everybody’s living room couch because of mobile sports wagering, you’ve really got to offer a special product to get people to come out to play,” Feigenbaum said.

But, Feigenbaum said Hard Rock Casino is experienced in running successful operations in competitive markets.

“Hard Rock is going to put in a very, strong competitive product. They’re investing a great deal of money. They are sparing no expense. They’ve got a great brand and a great reputation,” Feigenbaum said.

The Hard Rock Casino is both gambling mecca and a sort of music museum. It’s adorned with guitars from legendary performers like Prince and Eddie Van Halen, outfits worn by Billie Eilish, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, surrounded by glittering lights and upscale restaurants.

The place is outfitted with artifacts from Gary’s number one export: Michael Jackson and his famous brothers and sisters. The large guitar that greets visitors outside is a replica one played by Michael’s father, Joe Jackson.

This new casino already feels different for Gary residents like Rodney Lewis, who is optimistic that Hard Rock will deliver in ways not seen under Majestic Star casinos.

“It’s a rebirth because you have the branding of Hard Rock and it adds an almost instant feeling of legitimacy when a company like Hard Rock comes here to bring in entertainment,” Lewis said. “It’s almost like a revitalization of the area.”

Another Gary resident, Karen Williams, thinks the new casino will be a boon for local entertainers.

“It expands the whole region’s view of entertainment, bringing a little Las Vegas, showy stuff, to the region,” Williams said. “I think it’s going to be great.”

And unlike the other casino properties nearby, Hard Rock has reached out to the community to attract local vendors like Arica Buchanan, who runs a Gary-based skin care company.

She hopes to sell some of her products in Hard Rock Casino’s gift shops.

“I think the opportunities could possibly be endless because they are Hard Rock International,” Buchanan said. “Hopefully, we can get Gary residents in and they can see how hard we work and they would want to take us to different places — maybe overseas one day.”

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.