The commercial casino industry sustained a difficult loss last month with the passing of Bernard “Bernie” Goldstein, founder and chairman of Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc. Bernie was a pioneer and an innovator; he will be remembered as one of the most significant figures in the history of our industry. He helped bring gaming entertainment to millions of people living in America’s heartland.
Bernie once said, “Don’t make me out as a mogul. I’m just plain like everyone else.” Without a doubt, he was the “salt of the earth” – wholly unpretentious and genuine – but he also was an extraordinary businessman. With just a snap of his suspenders, he could disarm his opponents and command a room.
Bernie built Isle of Capri Casinos from the ground up. What began as a riverboat casino in Bettendorf, Ia., later blossomed into one of the country’s largest publicly traded gaming corporations. His stake in the commercial casino industry created jobs for as many 100,000 people across the country. Today, Isle of Capri Casinos operates 14 properties in six states and serves nearly 2 million visitors annually.
People often referred to Bernie as the “father of modern riverboat gaming.” That epithet is especially appropriate because Bernie considered Isle of Capri Casinos one big family, and he treated his colleagues accordingly.
Bernie first made his mark on the commercial casino industry in the late 1980s. He was a pivotal lobbying figure for the original legislation in favor of riverboat gaming in Iowa. At that time, Eastern Iowa’s river communities were plagued by the Farm Crisis, which had brought about a prolonged recession and a severe drop in population. Elsewhere in the Midwest, precipitous revenue declines in the automobile, chemical and heavy machinery production industries had led to sky-high unemployment rates and inflated welfare expenses.
Eager for new sources of revenue and jobs, legislators in Iowa legalized gambling in 1989 with the passage of the Iowa Excursion Boat Gambling Law. Land-based gambling was prohibited throughout much of the country, and riverboat gaming offered a palatable alternative. Two years later, on April 1, 1991, Bernie’s M/V Diamond Lady – the nation’s first riverboat casino – set sail. Back then, I’m sure Bernie could scarcely have imagined just how quickly riverboat casinos would evolve and expand to play such an important role in America’s tourism culture.
Soon after the M/V Diamond Lady opened, additional riverboat casinos dropped anchor in Iowa and in nearby Illinois. By the end of 1991, six casinos were operating along the Mississippi River, and one was operating on the Illinois River in Peoria, Ill. Riverboat casinos proved to be strong economic stimulants, boosting tourism and breathing new life into struggling industrial towns. In the years that followed, nine additional riverboat casinos opened their doors in Iowa and Illinois. Gaming community leaders who witnessed first-hand the advantages casinos brought to their cities frequently praised our industry.
Riverboat casinos quickly established a reputation as a major entertainment force in Middle America. In 1993, gambling was legalized in both Missouri and Indiana in an effort to attract tourists and promote economic development. Shortly afterwards, additional riverboat casinos were developed along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, revitalizing waterfront towns throughout the state. In Indiana, though legal challenges delayed the implementation of riverboat gaming, legislators eventually authorized boats along Lake Michigan, the Ohio River and Patoka Lake. In December 1995, Indiana’s first riverboat casino opened in Evansville and fast became one of the region’s most popular attractions.
Today, more than 70 riverboat casinos operate in six states in the Midwest and South, including Louisiana and Mississippi. They entertain millions of visitors and generate billions in revenue each year.
Without question, riverboat casinos provide their communities with numerous benefits. Tax receipts from these casinos fuel important infrastructure projects and education programs. In addition, riverboat casinos encourage local development, provide thousands of good-paying jobs and stimulate local businesses. For example, Iowa’s riverboat casinos helped jump-start the state’s stagnant economy by purchasing many products and services from Iowa-based vendors. They also have a well-established track record of reinvesting gaming dollars into various charitable initiatives.
Today’s riverboat casinos have changed considerably since the M/V Diamond Lady was launched nearly 20 years ago. Operators have broadened their business models to include cutting-edge games, fine dining options and luxurious hotel accommodations. For example, the recently opened Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind. – the largest riverboat casino in the country, which opened its doors this summer after six years of planning and construction – offers guests more than 3,200 slot machines, 88 table games, a 300-room hotel and several high-end restaurants. The new facility is so impressive that it recently was selected as a stop on the World Poker Tour.
Indeed, the riverboat gaming sector has come a long way in the last two decades; as he reflected on his career, Bernie must have felt a deep sense of pride about the role he played in the sector’s expansion. I am so grateful that Bernie achievements were recognized last year when he was inducted into the American Gaming Association’s Gaming Hall of Fame. In truth, there never was a more worthy member of that esteemed group.
Bernie will be sorely missed by his many friends in the commercial casino industry. Perhaps his colleague, Jim Perry, Isle of Capri Casinos’ current chief executive, said it best: “He will be remembered fondly as a man who stood by his word, who cared deeply about all those who worked for the many companies he led and loved his family with all his heart.”