Hard Rock betting on a brighter future for Gary

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SHOVELING THE CEREMONIAL dirt during the groundbreaking for the Hard Rock Casino in Gary are (left to right) Marcellus Osceola, 7th Tribal Council Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida; Marlon Jackson; Jahnae Erpenbach, GM of Majestic Star and Executive Vice President of Spectacle Entertainment; Jackie Jackson; Tito Jackson; Rod Ratcliff, Chairman and CEO of Spectacle Entertainment; and Greg Gibson, Vice President of the Board of Managers of Spectacle Entertainment. 

By: Giavonni Nickson

The City of Gary may finally have a winning hand with the opening of Hard Rock International Casino. On January 9, three of the original Jackson 5, Tito, Jackie, and Marlon Jackson headlined the groundbreaking of the planned $400 million Hard Rock Casino as “I’m goin’ back to Indiana, Indiana here I come,” projected from overhead speakers.

Hard Rock International Casino will be a re-branded Majestic Star Casino after it moves to the Borman Expressway at Burr Street and 29th Ave in Gary.

“Goin’ Back to Indiana” was the soundtrack for the Jackson brothers’ three-day return home with stops at West Side Leadership Academy, a charity event at the Boys and Girls Club, and finally the groundbreaking celebration.

Local and state legislators, members of Gary’s business community, and residents echoed sentiments of readiness to reimage an emerged steel city actualizing its potential during the ceremony.

“I think this is going to be the starting point for more development. We have already been receiving calls and inquiries about projects inside the city,” said Councilman Ronald Brewer.

Gary Chamber of Commerce CEO Chuck Hughes said, “This may be one of the largest businesses that we will have in the community, and I see the ability to have other businesses be offshoots of this.”

The ceremony marked the culmination of a long history with Gary at the forefront of casino gaming.

“It’s a dream come true,” said former Indiana State Representative Earlene Rogers.

In 1988, then-Governor Evan Bayh and the legislature legalized gaming in Indiana and started the Hoosier Lottery.

Rogers recalled the day 32 years ago when a Lew Wallace graduate said to her, “What do you think about casino gambling for Gary?” Rogers promptly took the idea to the legislature and started the journey.

Rogers, affectionately named the godmother of gaming, introduced the bill in 1989 to legalize three land-based casinos in Gary to spark economic development.

“Gary, Indiana is a special place, and it deserves special things,” said Marlon Jackson of his hometown. “We are coming together in harmony and peace to do something special and make this casino better than any Hard Rock International Casino anywhere in the world.”

The vision to have the casino along I- 80/94 is not just to provide gaming opportunities but full-fledged entertainment.

The new complex will offer a multi-level parking garage, 300 room hotel, more than 2,130 gaming positions, six food venues, and a 2,000 seat Hard Rock Live concert venue, all on 30 acres.

Spectacle Entertainment’s Vice President of Operations and Majestic Star General Manager Jahnae Erpenbach said, “We’re going to be hiring a lot of folks and supporting the city. We’re going to really work side by side with the city to revitalize Gary.”

Gary is ready to cash in on the surge of job growth Hard Rock will bring. There are approximately 950 employees at Majestic Star, and an estimated 1,600 additional jobs are needed for the new facility.

“We are no longer managing decline, but we’re together as a community re-imagining what Gary can be,” said Mayor Prince. “We believe that this is going to be the impetus for other businesses to take a different look at Gary as people will traverse the crossroads of America. We believe that this will spur the type of development that’s been so sorely needed in this city.”

The excitement over Hard Rock’s arrival has been drenched in controversy regarding the recent name change from Hard Rock Casino Gary. It was announced in July 2019 upon the initiation of the project, as Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana.

When asked about the reasons for changing names, Erpenbach said, “It is because it’s a better thing. The broader our reach is the better we are. We are trying to do the best we can for Gary.” Erpenbach stated that to be the number one premier casino in Indiana, Hard Rock must represent the entire region, as reflected in the regional name.

During the groundbreaking, Hard Rock International Chief Operating Officer Jon Lucas said, “Honestly, I don’t think we’re locked into that name yet. It was just us trying to be more general than specific. I don’t think we made a final decision on that,” regarding the name change.

When asked for her thoughts on the name change, former Gary Mayor Karen-Freeman Wilson said, “I’m hoping it is a work in progress. I understand marketing and that they want to really draw people from all over. They want people in Lake, Porter, and LaPorte County to feel welcome and to feel some ownership. But, there is no mistake people will be coming to Gary, Indiana.”

While in Gary, the Jackson brothers announced plans to come back to Indiana. “We look forward to working with the mayor here and working to bring more historical events to Gary,” said Marlon Jackson, who credited Gary as the foundation for the Jackson’s musical success.

Hard Rock’s plans, as grandiose as a Jackson 5 concert, include a Jackson family museum and restaurant, and a guitar smashing grand opening slated for spring 2021.

Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.

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