WRITING - The Vegas Guy

FLORENCE, Ind. -- Belterra means "beautiful land" in Portuguese, and if you decide to make your way to the Belterra Casino Resort, you're likely to be searching for a few choice Portuguese cuss words as you navigate the little country roads of northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana, looking in vain for signs that would give you a clue as to its whereabouts.

There's one little sign at the termination of State Highway 35 in the town of Warsaw, Kentucky--why didn't they name it "beautiful land" in Polish?--that will send you in the general direction of a lock and dam complex with a bridge across the Ohio River. Once you get to the Indiana side, you just sort of look for the big white building.

There's no town. No shopping mall. No park. Not even a convenience store. Just a long winding drive leading up to what most casino operators regard as the most gorgeous gambling joint in Indiana. It just happens to be located on the outskirts of nowhere.

Switzerland County, Indiana, actually has 8,000 residents, and they fought long and hard for the right to have a casino of their own. The fact that they're nowhere near any population centers--it's an hour to Cincinnati, an hour and a half to Louisville, and two hours plus to Indianapolis--didn't seem to deter them, and so a year ago they became the fifth and final Indiana community to get an Ohio River riverboat.

But they were snakebitten from the beginning. First Pinnacle Entertainment--the Glendale, Calif., company that operates seven other casinos in California, Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana and Argentina (!)--commissioned a shipyard in Mobile, Ala., to build a 370-foot gambling palace called the "Miss Belterra." Scheduled to arrive in Switzerland County in August of 2000, it collided with a barge instead and had to be towed back to New Orleans for repairs. They finally got the place open near the end of October, having missed the main tourist season, but after a few "tire- kickers" came by to check the place out, the earnings were extremely disappointing. In June, for example, Belterra took in only about $8.5 million, compared to $27 million at the Argosy Casino--closest gambling venue to Cincinnati--a few miles upriver.

To make matters even worse, a blackjack player who was winning heavily claimed his betting limit was lowered by a Belterra pit boss in the middle of a session, causing him to file suit and triggering an investigation by the Indiana Gaming Commission that's still pending.

Built at a cost of $230 million, Belterra is also the most expensive casino on the Ohio, putting additional pressure on management to jack up the revenues. The first CEO has already been fired, so there were interim executives in place when I stopped by to visit, and the most you can say about their marketing is that they seem to be making deals with bus operators all over the midwest. The buses start arriving in mid-morning from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia, unloading crowds of eager slots players clutching coupons good for meal discounts and the like.

What they see, when they enter the giant "boarding pavilion," is an elegant atrium of Italian marble, a plush hotel, a state-of-the-art two-level showroom, and a championship PGA golf course designed by the legendary Tom Fazio. (For the non- golfers out there, Fazio has ten courses on Golf Digest's list of the hundred best courses in America. It costs a cool hundred bucks to play 18 holes.) They've also been booking major boxing matches, some of them featured on HBO and ESPN After Dark, and they've ponied up the money for expensive but popular slot machines like "Jeopardy," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Go Fishing."

What they're searching for is some package of attractions that might cause the people in Louisville and Cincinnati to drive past other casinos to get to them. And so far it's not working.

"Our slogan is 'Raise Your Expectations,'" says Mary Beth Wilkes, the casino's public relations director. "Just walking into this property, your expectations are raised. The boarding area is beautiful. The gaming experience is better. The building is nicer. Product-wise, no one can compete with us."

But apparently most Indiana gamblers don't want their expectations raised. Most of them go to the closest casino, period, and the only hope of these isolated places seems to be to funnel more and more money into the property, trying to create destination events (Howie Mandel, Chicago, Ray Charles and Kenny Rogers have all played the showroom) or offering tourist packages too cheap to resist (not likely, since the lowest the hotel rates go is $89).

Technically the hotel is in Florence, Indiana, a tiny town two miles down the road that's dominated by an old wooden Masonic lodge, but they bill the casino as being located in Belterra, Indiana. "We found that people get confused and think we're in Florence, Kentucky," explained Wilkes.

And there's just not much to do in the area unless you're a corn farmer. They do have the nicest health spa of all the hotels on the Ohio. Their two-level gambling boat is indeed beautiful, with curlicue architecture and plush patterned carpets. They have a table game called "Wild Aruba Stud" that's not offered anywhere else. And for the truly adventurous, you can tour the headquarters of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association in nearby Friendship, Indiana; the Thomas Family Winery in Madison, or the historic Lanier Mansion, erstwhile home of J.F.D. Lanier, "Indiana's famous financier." Not exactly the Mirage volcano or the dancing waters at the Bellagio.

Still, when other casino executives visit, they're a little envious of the money spent on the place. They have a lush VIP lounge, an excellent seafood restaurant, and extra amenities like a spa bathtub in every room. But the boat seems very small compared to Caesars Indiana, closest to Louisville, or the Argosy. The steakhouse is noisy, and the waitstaff seems confused about the menu. The music inside the pavilion is funereal. And they're obviously going to have to do something beyond the 60- foot aquarium they're touting as a big must-see attraction.

I kept asking why they chose a Portuguese word for the name of the place. I didn't really get an answer, but I think they need to change languages.


Near Florence, Ind.
Theme: Portuguese Riverboat Moderne
Opened: 2000
Total Investment: $230 million
Known For: Pampering health spa
Marketing niche: Bus groups from the midwest.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: No free alcohol, but medium
Dealers: Amiable
Bosses: Professional
Tables: 57
Slots: 1,350
Rooms: 308
Surrounding area: Cornfields
Overall rating: 60
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $40 after a "learning experience"
at "Wild Aruba Stud": Total to date: -$203