About 2.2 million people have visited the new Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary since it opened its doors in May 2021 propelling the site to the top earning casino in the state.
It’s a designation the property has held since October, topping its competitors and almost quadrupling the revenue generated by the former Majestic Star Casinos it replaced. Hard Rock again topped the state with $38.2 million in win earnings in April, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission.
Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana President Matt Schuffert said it has been a great first year for the casino and for gaming in Indiana.
“Opening during a pandemic in a mature gaming market, who knew how well we would do or how well we wouldn’t do,” Schuffert said.
Hard Rock’s success has not come at solely at expense of the other Northwest Indiana casinos.
“We’ve grown the market,” Schuffert said. “We haven’t stolen a ton of business from them.”
Customer traffic still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels due to lingering concerns about the pandemic and gathering in public. Schuffert said there is still a lot of upside to the market.
“We’ve been able to grow the market in a pretty strong fashion and we continue to refine things in the business based on customer feedback. Those are all things we think will be guest satisfiers. We are certainly very optimistic about the future. We envision the business to grow here,” Schuffert said.
Schuffert said the casino’s location so close to a major expressway is one of the drivers to its success. The casino is south of the Borman Expressway off of Burr Street. No other casino is similarly located. He also credits the approximately 600 team members who made the switch from the Majestic Star over to Hard Rock and the approximately 1,000 more hired to staff the new casino. About 40% of the employees are from Gary while 75% are from Lake County.
“We knew we would do well from the perspective of the location where the facility was built and the brand. The brand Hard Rock is extremely well known. It’s been great,” Schuffert said.
Schuffert said plans call for carving out additional space for slot machines by capturing a small portion of the Fresh Harvest restaurant and converting it to gaming. Another cashier cage will be added by the Asian baccarat tables.
Wednesday, in time for the one-year anniversary celebration Saturday, the casino opened its first sportsbook.
Moving forward discussions continue about phase two of the development, which is the addition of a parking garage and hotel.
“The design and construction team is working hard to develop a hotel project that will work well here,” Schuffert said.
All the changes and improvements are guest driven. Schuffert said the casino looks to input from guests in planning how to evolve.
“We are certainly hearing a lot of feedback from customers,” Schuffert said, teasing more is to come later in the year.
“We really wanted to leverage the casino as an entertainment destination and not just slots and table games,” Schuffert said. The five casino restaurants are all thriving. Hard Rock Live, a 2,000-seat entertainment venue kicked off in November.
“Some people come here to enjoy entertainment, great food and beverages, and never touch a slot machine. We want to be a place where people have fun,” Schuffert said.
“The hospitality business is very guest service focused, very guest facing. The team does things to draw customers back. There are a lot of gaming, food and beverage choices in this market. It’s great to see we were very quick to become top producing casino in the state in a short amount of time,” Schuffert said.
Gary Mayor Jerome Prince described the Hard Rock casino development as a benefit for the city. The project has increased real estate taxes. Those tax dollars are put back into the Hard Rock Casino Airport Tax Increment Financing District around the casino to help facilitate future development in the area. Officials are awaiting figures on the first-year property tax assessment for the development.
The city also receives income tax revenues from the casino employees who reside in Gary.
“We’ve been able to realize an additional number of employees which creates wages and provides an opportunity for people to take care of their basic needs, to take care of their families,” Prince said.
From the economic development perspective, Prince said the casino absolutely created a positive impact on the adjacent properties.
“We are still hopeful to see additional investments. It just creates excitement,” Prince said.
A city spokesman said late Friday that $32.5 million is the increase in assessed valuation from vacant lot to what is there now in the first year.
There also are new economic development opportunities in Buffington Harbor with the two former Majestic riverboat casinos sold and gone.
As part of the local development agreement, the city receives a guaranteed $6.1 million based on 1.5% of the adjusted gross earnings at the casino. Any revenues generated above the guaranteed minimum is placed in a casino lakefront development account, which the city can use for future initiatives.
As of April, the city has received $4.1 million, Prince said. If the earnings at the casino continue in the same fashion for the remainder of the year, another $8 to $10 million will be deposited into the casino lakefront development account. Those funds can be used for any number of things in collaboration between the common council and administration.
“Some areas I’d certainly love to explore are opportunities for increased demolition perhaps,” Prince said. “I would love to utilize some of those revenues to address blight in the city in a wholistic manner once and for all.”
Carrie Napoleon is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.