|By Greta Guest, Detroit Free Press|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 15, 2005 - WINDSOR -- The Ontario government, spurred on by competition from the Detroit casinos, announced plans Monday for a $400-million expansion and renovation of Casino Windsor.
The expansion, which includes a 400-room hotel tower, a 5,000-seat theater and 100,000 square feet of convention space, is intended to snare more tourism and business conventions. The project will take three years to complete. Groundbreaking is expected this summer.
The convention center would not compete with Cobo Center's more than 700,000 square feet of exhibit space. Ontario officials said they had not determined what sorts of convention business they would chase for the new facility.
The investment also includes a face-lift of the casino, but no new slot machines or table games are part of the plan.
"We enjoy a very hearty and friendly competitive relationship with our friends in Detroit. After today, it will get a lot friendlier," said Sandra Pupatello, an Ontario parliament member who represents western Windsor.
The casino opened in 1998. It gets 80 percent of its business from U.S. gamblers. Built at a cost of $500 million, the casino boasts a 389-room hotel, a cozy 230-seat theater, restaurants and a VIP area on three floors.
The casino's gaming revenues have fallen about 30 percent since the 9/11 terrorist attacks slowed border crossings. And the recent strength of the Canadian dollar means Americans find their dollar doesn't stretch quite as far across the river.
Casino Windsor drew nearly $600 million (U.S.) in annual revenue before the 2001 attacks. Now, the casino is drawing about $416 million a year. It laid off 201 workers in January. And daily traffic has fallen from around 18,000 before 9/11 to about 13,000 visitors a day now.
Casino profits will pay for the project. It's expected to create about 7,000 temporary construction jobs and 400 permanent casino jobs, Pupatello said.
Kevin Laforet, Windsor Casino Ltd. president and CEO, said it's unlikely the casino will regain all the revenue ground lost after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the non-gaming attractions will help it compete.
"Those were pretty heady times. We were No. 1 before 9/11," Laforet said. "It gives us everything we need to put Casino Windsor back where we belong--the leader in our market.
"It is the non-gaming offerings that drive the visits. It is not an exaggeration to say these are Las Vegas-style amenities."
He said the size of the 5,000-seat auditorium and theater was determined after the company did extensive research on the type of facility needed to draw big-name acts, boxing matches and touring shows such as Riverdance.
"It's about giving the casino an edge," said Joe Cordiano, Ontario Minister of economic trade and development. "Just across the river in Detroit there are three casinos vying for the same business. Without this investment, Casino Windsor may have fallen behind in an increasingly competitive market."
Meanwhile, the Detroit casinos operators have carved out a $1.18- billion industry without flashy Las Vegas-style offerings. With hotels and large auditoriums, Detroit would have a shot at becoming a regional gambling attraction.
While Detroit casino operators are anxious to start construction on their own gaming palaces while waiting for a lawsuit to be resolved, Greektown Casino spokesman Roger Martin said: "We welcome any good competition."
And MotorCity Casino spokeswoman Jackie Woods said: "The addition of more quality hotels, convention space and entertainment options will only prove to be a value of the entire area."
An injunction barring construction of permanent facilities imposed by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still stands. The Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians sued the Detroit casinos, saying the city's 1997 bidding process for the licenses was unconstitutional. The appeals court agreed.
While the MotorCity and Greektown casinos settled with the tribe, MGM Grand Detroit has not. The appeals court is not expected to reach a decision on the case until late this year.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's spokesman Howard Hughey said the city works collaboratively with Windsor officials to market the area and has no ill feelings that the Canadians are stepping ahead in the casino race.
"It's good that the city of Windsor is remaining competitive. Our situation without permanent casinos is frustrating," Hughey said. "We're just in a holding pattern right now, unfortunately. Once all the legal matters are cleared up, we hope our casinos will take a page out of Windsor's book and decide to push the limits of their imaginations as far as what these casinos can do for our city."
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