NORTHFIELD: Jon Lucas sees plenty of challenges ahead in launching the new Hard Rock-themed Rocksino at Northfield Park.



Two of the most important might not be obvious.



“Everybody is going to eat and everybody is going to go to the bathroom,” said Lucas, who recently was named president and general manager of the racino. “So have clean restrooms and great food. If you can do that, I think that’s a differentiator.”



Not that toilets and food are the only items on his lengthy work checklist.



Lucas, 62, a nearly 30-year veteran of the gaming industry, is overseeing everything from the construction of the 200,000-square-foot facility to the installation of more than 2,300 slots-like video lottery terminals to hiring more than 600 workers.



And he has to do all of that by Dec. 18 — the targeted Rocksino opening date.



Lucas sat down with the Beacon Journal this week to talk about the ongoing $250 million to $300 million racino project, which is now a busy construction site along state Route 8.



Lucas said the job was extremely attractive because of the powerful, worldwide Hard Rock brand. It didn’t hurt either that the racino is being run by the Orlando-based Hard Rock directly, as opposed to being a licensed property.



He also has the opportunity to build a gaming and entertainment destination from the ground up.



Meanwhile, it was his extensive and successful industry background that made him attractive to Hard Rock.



“It takes a special person to start something literally from scratch, and Jon’s got this history, the pedigree, the record, the demeanor, the discipline to pull it together in the next eight or nine months,” said Brock Milstein, owner of the Northfield Park horse track, which partnered with Hard Rock on the project.



Work history



Lucas started his career in 1984 at the Sands Casino in Atlantic City, N.J.



He also has launched a riverboat casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa; ran three casinos for Primadonna Resorts in Primm, Nev.; was regional president of three Caesars Entertainment properties in Tunica, Miss.; and most recently oversaw the IP Casino Resort Spa in Biloxi, Miss.



Some industry observers praised his hiring by Hard Rock.



“I think reasonable people would agree that he’s one of the top executives in the gaming industry and not just because he’s had a lot of titles,” said Dennis Conrad, chief relationship officer with Raving Consulting Co. in Reno, Nev., who has worked with Lucas on projects and considers him a friend. “He has a formula about valuing his customers and his employees ... He’s top-notch.”



Lucas is perhaps most well-known in the industry for rebranding and turning around the struggling IP Casino, formerly called the Imperial Palace.



When he joined that property in 2005, it was a filthy, mismanaged mess. Lucas cited the fact the casino and hotel were opened with used furniture.



On top of that, he had to struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which blew in six weeks after he took over.



He opened the hotel to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, families and other emergency workers. According to Casino Journal, an industry publication, he became a local hero.



“I think that he’s been a real player in the community,” Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway told Casino Player in 2008. “The whole organization, from the trustees to Jon and his staff, has really become a huge asset to the city of Biloxi.”



But the bottom line for any gaming executive is earnings. That’s how they’re judged in the industry. At the IP Casino, annual earnings climbed from $12 million to $50 million under his leadership.



“Nothing short of astounding,” Conrad said about the transformation.



Michael Sunderman, publisher of Jackpot Magazine in Mississippi, agreed.



“Jon is a big proponent of customer service and attention to detail and he took an unfinished Imperial Palace project and turned it into one of the nicest resorts in the entire state,” he said.



Lucas is known for focusing on food and beverage service and surrounding himself with a quality, loyal management team, Sunderman said.



“I’d also say he’s a huge proponent of any community he lives in,” he said. “He got tremendously involved on the Gulf Coast. He was huge on charitable donations. They were giving away millions of dollars a year from that casino under Jon’s leadership, and I think you’ll see that happen in Ohio, as well.”



Immediate goal



Lucas said his immediate goal is hiring his management team.



“There’s nothing more important than who you surround yourself with,” he said.



As far as hiring all 600 or so employees, Lucas and Milstein urged job-seekers to keep an eye on www.hardrock.com, where available positions will be listed in the future. Lucas anticipated that serious hiring won’t begin until a few months before the racino opens.



Choosing an opening date of Dec. 18 might seem odd, but it was selected for a specific reason: The week before Christmas tends to be the slowest of the year in the industry, giving the Rocksino an opportunity to iron out any kinks.



The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, meanwhile, tends to be the busiest, allowing the racino to rake in business.



Competition



The Rocksino will enter an increasingly competitive gambling market in Ohio. The ThistleDown Racino, which opens April 9, is just up the road on state Route 8 in North Randall. Horseshoe Casino isn’t far away in downtown Cleveland.



Not to mention casinos in Toledo and Columbus, and another racino in Columbus and one planned near Youngstown. And there are the nearby casinos in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.



Not surprisingly, Lucas is not a fan of the storefront sweepstakes and Internet cafes that also dot Ohio. The gaming industry is highly regulated and yet the cafes so far have avoided any statewide regulation.



Conrad, the gaming consultant, said Lucas is “a great strategist, and that will be important as Ohio gets very competitive very quickly.”



Lucas, a former baseball player at the University of Tennessee, said he’s not afraid of serious competition.



“That competitive fire still burns,” he said.



The Rocksino will have plenty of advantages, he said, including free parking, gambling on a single floor and two outside smoking areas with VLTs.



There also are the non-VLT amenities that will attract customers, such as the comedy club, Hard Rock theater, Hard Rock Cafe, gift shop, upscale steakhouse and horse track.



“So it’s really, truly an entertainment destination resort more than a gambling joint,” Lucas said.



Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.