Donald Trump knows what's in a name so long as it's his: money, media attention, a glitzy if not gaudy cachet. Casino in indiana.
Yet his moniker -- emblazoned on everything he buys, builds or floats -- hasn't been a platinum-plated draw in the three years since the Trump Casino boat began operations in the euphemistically named Buffington Harbor in Gary, Ind.
The Trump Casino significantly lags other Indiana gambling boats in nearby Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City in revenues, though it runs slightly ahead of the Majestic Star Casino, which operates from the same Gary site.
The Empress Casino Hammond, for example, has generated more than $43 million in wagering and admission taxes for the year through August -- some $17 million more than the Trump casino has churned out in the same time frame.
Meanwhile, the elimination in July of the cruising requirement for Illinois casinos is taking a bigger marketshare bite from The Donald's $50-million catamaran-style craft than the other Hoosier boats, which are required by state law to sail Lake Michigan every few hours.
In August, when the Northwest Indiana casino market grew almost 7% over August 1998, the Trump Casino saw a 3.1% drop to $12 million in adjusted gross receipts (AGR), the amount left after winnings have been paid out. In 1998, the boat had a total AGR of more than $138 million.
It's a far cry from the original forecast of Mr. Trump, who predicted his vessel would rule the Chicago casino market. He's changed his tune accordingly.
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"Being a little further out was never as good as being closer," says Mr. Trump, the high-profile New York real estate developer who's being talked up as a potential presidential candidate on the Reform Party ticket. "But we've done the numbers and we're running over expectations. We've been very happy. It's a good investment."
A combination of factors -- the greater distance from Chicago, long trains that can tie up traffic for 20 to 30 minutes near the boat's entrance, even the general Midwest antipathy toward New York -- have conspired to trump the Trump name.
"It's just another boat," says Joan Cyperian, a Lake Station, Ind., resident who prefers Harrah's East Chicago Casino. "I can't remember anything distinguishing about it except for the coal trains. They have a walkway now (over the double sets of railroad tracks), but I'm not a walker. They have nice valet parking, but you can't get to it if there's a train."
Sheila Branch, a South Sider whose favorite casino is the Empress in Hammond, notes, "Everybody wanted to go once to see what the Trump boat was like, but I've had better luck at the Empress. (The Trump name) is just a name."
Additionally, competitors with familiar brands and local reputations have exploited advantages Mr. Trump doesn't enjoy.
Trump Casinos & Hotel Resorts -- the publicly traded, New York-based company he chairs -- has just four properties: three casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and the Gary boat.
In contrast, Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment Inc. has 18 casinos, including two well-established boats in Joliet. Empress, which is being acquired by Las Vegas-based Horseshoe Gaming LLC, also has two boats in Joliet, allowing it to tap a pool of regular customers in the Chicago area.
"The Harrah's name is better than Trump's because it's a national name," asserts Bill Thompson, chairman of the public administration department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who has followed the gambling industry for 19 years. "They really know how to work the market, especially the middle-class people. Trump had no experience with boats or local markets."
Not that Trump hasn't tried. A winding road through an impressive archway at the entrance to Buffington Harbor leads to a massive pavilion with a gleaming brass-colored roof serving both Trump Casino and the Majestic Star Casino. Despite the lavish trimmings, drivers still must contend with slow-moving trains delivering coal to nearby steel plants.
Faced with a similar problem in Hammond, Empress executives spent more than $9 million on a swooping ramp over the busy tracks outside their casino, then donated it to the city. Mr. Trump and Don Barden, the Detroit businessman who owns the Majestic Star, are collaborating on a 3,000-car parking garage near the pavilion, but there are no plans for an overpass.
"There would be more challenges to being as successful in Gary," says Rick Mazer, vice-president and general manager of the Empress Hammond boat. "But I'm not sure all those hurdles aren't surmountable."
Adds Joe Domenico, senior vice-president and general manager of Harrah's East Chicago vessel, which enjoys a substantial advantage over the Trump operation because it is much larger: "The customer makes their decision based on where they are getting the best overall treatment. In Gary, with those boats side by side, you'd think they could create some synergies."
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Even if Mr. Trump hasn't built the top casino attraction, Gary and Northwest Indiana community leaders are quick to note the positive impact he and Mr. Barden have had on the beleaguered steel town, which gets about $30 million annually in gambling tax money.
"In the long haul, they've been great for Gary," says Thomas McDermott, president of the Northwest Indiana Forum, an economic development agency.
Adds Indiana state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, "Just spend a couple of hours watching the line of people of all ages, sizes and colors coming in (to Buffington Harbor). They don't have a perception of Gary as the murder capital of the world."