EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Going to Casino Aztar is like attending a giant barbecue where everyone knows one another and you're the guy with hot sauce dribbling onto your orange Hawaiian shirt. This is not necessarily a bad thing. They still love ya here.
This place is the ultimate hometown casino, where they're so blasé about the usual casino protocol that supervisors pretty much wear whatever they want--polo shirts and cotton dockers seem to be the choice of the moment--and dealers are almost as casual.
"We're in the heart of the conservative German-heritage midwest," explains Pam Martin, the casino's director of public relations and advertising. "We're surrounded by cornfields. That's why we have to be the friendly neighborhood casino. The city wanted to make sure that we did not have the personality of Las Vegas, or the personality of Atlantic City, but that we would take on the personality of Evansville."
And that personality is so laid back that, on a recent sunny day, the riverboat's observation deck was occupied by a single elderly guy who was . . . taking a nap!
Of course, we're in Indiana, where casinos are regarded not as money-making business ventures but civic tax generators, like an extension of the Chamber of Commerce. Pam Martin, in fact, was employed by the Chamber of Commerce when gambling was approved in Vanderburgh County in the early nineties--it was a close vote, 51 to 49 per cent--and her move over to casino marketing was fairly effortless. (This happens, in fact, in almost every Indiana gambling city. Casino payrolls are loaded up with former city, county and state employees.)
Even though the Aztar is owned by the same corporation that runs the Tropicana--the ultimate "Old Vegas" casino--it's definitely the most Indianan of all the Indiana gambling joints. The "City of Evansville" riverboat is a conventional paddle- wheeler, with the conventional three decks, arranged in a conventional manner, with tinsel and balloons to liven it up in places but with no real ostentation. If it's possible for a casino to be shy and reserved, this would be the one.
And the customers are almost all locals. Aztar draws from a 60-mile radius, which includes Henderson, Kentucky, a few farming towns--and that's about it. "And of course that means we have to keep changing things," says Martin. "We have to keep everything new. We're continually changing the games, because our customers are here every week."
The Aztar does have some nice touches for visitors. The lounge is in the middle of the boarding area--like all Indiana casinos, the riverboat is required to cruise every two hours, so sometimes the wait can be 90 minutes--and they have a steady stream of jazz bands, local rock groups, and sixties acts like The Fifth Dimension, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and John Kay and Steppenwulf. (Yes, all these bands work lounges.) The Regent Court, their steak and seafood restaurant, has a spectacular view of the river and extremely good food. Their buffet, oddly enough, is limited to Chinese food. Taken together, it's a cut above what's available in the rest of Evansville, and the regulars seem to enjoy the low-key coziness of it all.
The real purpose of the Aztar, as originally envisioned by the city fathers, was to revitalize decaying downtown Evansville. Since 1996, when the casino opened, they've pumped millions into sprucing up the streets and the historic areas, especially the beautiful Riverfront Park with its jogging paths, bicycle trails and outdoor amphitheater. But the project as a whole is a bust. They tried to turn Main Street into a quaint pedestrian shopping area, but it's full of empty stores and can be spooky at night. And there's been no real influx of other business.
The reasons aren't hard to find. The local designers of the casino complex built on an old industrial site, putting it so far from the city center that the hotel actually has its back turned to Evansville. An unsightly parking garage separates the casino from the nearest available retail space, and the result is that the Aztar is an island of plenty in a sea of desolation. It's pretty desolation--the street signs are brand spanking new and there are a few streets full of gorgeous Victorian houses--but the overall effect is that, like many cities, Evansville has destroyed too many old downtown buildings and replaced them with parking lots, creating a jagged-tooth effect.
"Everyone wished there were more revitalization," says Martin. "Retail downtown is very diminished. Dion's ladies specialty store just closed and moved to the mall on the east side. We do have an excellent cigar bar and restaurant called The Jungle on Main Street. We have an old theater, the Victory Theater. We have a multi-purpose sports facility. Fast Eddie's hamburgers is next door to the casino. A bank tower is going up two blocks away."
But the most significant construction is the casino's own 250-room hotel, which caters to businessmen and "premium players" and is similar to a small Hyatt. Part of the problem is that the Aztar was the first casino in Indiana, but as it turned out, it's also the least profitable (tenth out of ten in monthly revenues, although it still makes more money than Aztar's other riverboat, in Carruthersville, Mo.). All the major markets--Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, Nashville--have casinos within much easier driving range. Add to that that two years ago the state of Illinois passed a dockside gaming law--eliminating the requirement that riverboats actually leave the dock--and now there are people in Evansville who will make the two-hour drive to Harrah's Metropolis in Metropolis, Ill., rather than sit in the lounge waiting for the riverboat to return.
Still, Evansville loves its casino, and how could it not? Aztar pays admissions taxes, wagering taxes, property taxes, lease payments for Riverfront Park, then makes regular contributions to the Downtown Revitalization Fund, Project Riverfront, the Victory Theatre, the Downtown Learning Center (a conversion of the old Sonntag Hotel), something called the Economic Development Revolving Fund, the Evansville Auditorium and Convention Centre, Burdette Park, the Evansville One fund for low-income residents, the Pigeon Creek Greenway, and the United Way. Add it all up and it comes out to a 35 per cent effective tax rate--tough on the slots players, but fine and dandy for the various local entities who don't have to worry about raising funds anymore.
"The hope was that we would be expanding and becoming a destination place," says Martin. And to do that they sponsor annual events like "Thunder on the River" (hydroplane races on the Ohio) and "Freedom Fest" (a two-week patriotic blowout). Still, they remain mostly local events, and that's just fine with the regular customers.
In truth it's a fun place to gamble. The dealers are extremely friendly, and they have 60 table games, even though it's obviously built for the slots player. (They collect $2 million a month on dollar slot machines alone.) The casino sometimes smells like disinfectant, and the supervisors might be a little shabby in their presentation, but who cares when you're basically at a picnic anyway?
Downtown Evansville, Ind.
Theme: Grade-school Birthday Party
Total Investment: $130 million
Known For: The weekly barbecue on the observation deck.
Marketing niche: All locals.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: No free alcohol, but lively waitresses
Dealers: Absurdly friendly
Surrounding area: Sleepy downtown Evansville, although the Ellis Park Horse Track is five minutes away.
Overall rating: 68
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $38 after an hour of festive $5
blackjack: Total to date: -$125