Region building trades among big employment winners at new Gary casino

GARY — Over the next 16 months, more than $300 million will be spent transforming some 30 acres of empty lots and junkyards adjacent to the Borman Expressway at Burr Street into a top-of-the-line land-based casino.

When complete, the 225,000-square-foot Hard Rock Casino Gary will feature a gaming floor with more than 2,000 slot machines and table game seats, a sports book, a Hard Rock Cafe, a 2,000-seat Hard Rock Live music performance venue, numerous restaurants and bars and eventually an attached 200-room hotel and parking garage.

Getting to that point, however, will require approximately 1,000 construction workers and a carefully orchestrated work schedule, along with some luck on the weather, if the casino is to open, as planned, to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Dec. 31, 2020.

Randy Palmateer, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades, last week said he’s confident the Region’s union construction workers are up to the task.

“The construction schedule is the most extreme I’ve ever seen, since they want to be open by next New Year’s Eve,” Palmateer said. “So there will be a lot of overtime. It’s going to provide a lot of jobs for our building trades council.”

He said Spectacle Entertainment, the casino’s owner, already has negotiated a project labor agreement, which Palmateer said ensures the casino construction jobs will go to local workers, with hiring priority for Gary residents and contracts for minority-owned businesses as required by local ordinances.

“It’s going to be all local trade union jobs,” Palmateer said. “It’s going to be great for our building trades.”

John Keeler, Spectacle vice president and general counsel, said the company already is well-aware of the quality of Northwest Indiana workers based on its experience owning and operating the Majestic Star casinos at Gary’s Buffington Harbor since March.

Keeler last week told the Indiana Gaming Commission that one of the best things associated with the Majestic Star purchase was General Manager Jahnae Erpenbach discovering the commitment and pride of the current casino employees.

“We didn’t get to do a lot of on-site diligence, and the first thing that Jahnae noticed was how great the people are who work there,” Keeler said.

“We were pleasantly surprised that so many people had worked there for their whole careers. It’s not uncommon to find people who had been there 15, 20 years.”

Moreover, those who previously worked at the casino, including Gary Common Council President Ron Brewer, fondly remember the experience, Keeler said.

With that in mind, Keeler said Spectacle has made a major effort to participate in community and service organizations serving Gary specifically, and Northwest Indiana as a whole, just as the company’s predecessor did when it owned the horse track casinos in the central Indiana cities of Anderson and Shelbyville.

Keeler told the gaming commission that 17 of Majestic Star’s senior managers serve on charitable or other community boards in the Region because they live and work in Northwest Indiana, as do the employees they supervise, and everyone wants stronger communities.

“That has been a significant plus for the city,” Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said. “I think they are modeling a lot of activity and a lot of initiatives that can be replicated throughout the state of Indiana, and we are pleased to have them as a partner.”

If all goes according to plan, the 950 current Majestic Star employees nearly will double to 1,800 workers when the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel is complete.

That would be a significant number of job gains in an industry that has been bleeding employees since peaking in 2001 with 16,300 casino workers statewide.

There currently are approximately 12,000 Indiana casino employees, according to federal labor data.

Freeman-Wilson is optimistic that relocating the Majestic Star casinos from Buffington Harbor to the Borman-adjacent site also will result in thousands of new, non-casino jobs in Gary when Buffington Harbor is available for redevelopment.

The city has proposed turning Buffington Harbor into a rail, road, air and water shipping and warehousing alternative to Chicago, which Freeman-Wilson said clearly is “the highest and best use” for the property.

Keeler agreed. He said the Borman site for the Hard Rock Casino is superior in every way to the Majestic Star dock on Lake Michigan.

“If you haven’t been there, to find those two boats you need a map and compass because they are really hidden in a very remote location,” he said.