“It hasn’t been the panacea a lot of people thought it would be. That it would be this miraculous savior for the West Side,” says Hilltop historian Jennie Keplar.
Casino and man panhandling outside

Sports betting is legal in Ohio, as if anyone needed reminding. And at Hollywood Casino on the West Side, its “Sportsbook” – a 12,000 sq. ft. area strictly for sports betting – is opening February 11 with seven betting windows and 30 kiosks.

Sports betting is becoming Columbus’s newest addiction. Through phone apps, kiosks at both Crew and Blue Jackets games, and soon at Kroger. Adults can also make bets during the game – it’s called “live betting” or “in-game betting”. Also known as “micro betting” considering gamblers can bet on what team scores the next touchdown or what athlete scores the next goal.

The Free Press can almost hear the dollars being sucked out of the community and directly into Penn Entertainment’s, the out-of-town corporate owner, overstuffed pockets. They made $2.7 billion in gross profits for 2022.

Penn Entertainment, formerly Penn National Gaming, arguably manufacturers one thing – addiction. Coincidentally, heroin and “fenty” have tormented the casino’s surrounding neighborhoods the past two decades.

The Free Press is not entirely against gambling if it doesn’t negatively impact one’s life and family. But locally thousands have been adversely impacted and sports betting is only going to make it worse. Just ask those at Maryhaven, the area’s most recognizable addiction rehab center.

“We are just now seeing the major consequences for having a casino in our community,” said Maryhaven gambling counselor Bruce Jones to us back in 2017. “We’ve been increasing the number of people we see every year since we started this six or seven years ago. We now have Gamblers Anonymous meetings every day of the week in Central Ohio.”

In 2009 a statewide ballot issue passed making casinos legal in Ohio, and Penn Entertainment had eyes for the Arena District. But opposition from the Dispatch, the Columbus Partnership, Nationwide, AEP, and the grassroots Casino-Free Columbus, essentially walled-off the Arena District.

Undeterred, and with encouragement from then-Mayor Mike Coleman, Penn Entertainment sought a different location. The shuttered Delphi/GM plant adjacent to the Westland Mall won out. During its long-lost golden age, the plant had employed thousands. 

Hilltop historian and lifelong resident Jennie Keplar – an admin for the popular Facebook page Hilltop, USA Memories – recalls it was Coleman who came up with the idea for a new location. It was also Coleman who began telling the Hilltop, Westgate, Westland, the casino would improve the West Side and pay dividends in the long run.

“It wasn’t Penn Entertainment making those promises,” says Keplar. “It was a combination of the rhetoric coming from the mayor’s Office at the time, and the desperation of Hilltoppers and West Siders, because the economic situation at that time was really rough. We were in a recession, and Mayor Coleman had a really good propaganda machine. He got people’s hopes up.”

But Keplar remembers how Hilltop leaders pointedly asked the planners of the casino, ‘What are you going to be bringing to the Hilltop?’

“They went out of their way to tell us, ‘We’re not promising to improve the West Side,’” she remembers. “They told us, ‘We are in the casino business. We are about profit and revenue. We’re not making promises to improve the neighborhood. Or bring businesses back.’”

Over a decade later, Keplar says Hollywood Casino’s impact on the West Side can be described in one word – “flat.” Even though Penn Entertainment insists on its “Corporate Responsibility” page: “We’re dedicated to the communities in which we live and operate.”

“Our infrastructure hasn’t really improved a whole lot since then,” says Keplar. “We lost a bunch of businesses; we gained a few businesses. It’s not like that entire area has redeveloped into this amazing thing. It’s not extra pretty. There’s no beautification efforts. There’s still vacant properties and empty lots around that area.”

She says the casino hasn’t turned out as awful as some thought it would be, and Penn Entertainment isn’t obligated to improve the community. But now that manufacturing is returning to the US, a casino for the West Side is looking more and more like a regrettable idea.

“It hasn’t been the panacea a lot of people thought it would be. That it would be this miraculous savior for the West Side,” she says.  

Penn Entertainment late in 2022 announced it is building a hotel connected to Hollywood Casino. Bringing temporary construction jobs and 100 hotel jobs.

The only consequential business to emerge over the previous decade is the La Plaza Tapatia grocery on Georgesville Road. The Free Press asked an owner/operator of the grocery if they had received any help, in any way, from Hollywood Casino.

He shook his head “No” and did not want to offer his name for publication. 

Penn Entertainment’s business model is about keeping “the fish” (the so-called losers) hooked. The casino’s owners and executives must feel some shame. So, it only makes sense Penn Entertainment would or should help the heroin and “fenty” addicts who roam Sullivant Avenue?

“No, the casino has not helped us in anyway,” says Esther Flores, the “Saint of Sullivant Avenue” who runs the non-profit 1DIVINELINE2HEALTH, which offers support and services to the women she calls “Street Sisters.”  

Would you accept money from the casino if offered?

“Of course,” said Flores. “(But) I had a friend apply and they didn’t nudge.”

Zerqa Abid, the founder of MY Project USA, which strives to help disadvantaged young people on the West Side, says they would not seek or accept help from Hollywood Casino.

“We wouldn’t because we believe that gambling ruins families. It’s an addiction,” said Abid. “It’s one of the root causes of families financial destruction that leads to more harm and hurts children eventually.”

Penn Entertainment’s charitable foundation has made small donations to the South Central Hilltop Area Block Watch Clean-up, Summer Jam West and Westgate Neighbors Association, among others. Their grant application can be found here.

Recent good news for the casino’s neighborhood was the state announcing it will demolish the broken-down ghost town that is the Westland Mall. Besides helping the uncountable addicted just mere feet from their new Sportsbook, Penn Entertainment has an opportunity to be part of what comes next at the old Westland Mall.

Is it completely out of the realm of possibility make a significant investment in a rehabilitation center or afterschool program? Especially after a decade of hooking their own “fish” and causing immeasurable pain for those who can’t stop themselves from losing within their walls?

“They don’t live here. This is why relying on outside saviors to swoop in here and fix us is never a good idea,” said Keplar. “They don’t have to live with their choices every day. So they don’t care. I think it’s nice they support our local neighborhood groups, that’s good. But I’m kind of shocked they do that.”