BY SCOTT WUERZ
With less than two days to go before the new, land-based Casino Queen's grand opening, the sound of power saws and hammers began to give way to the familiar chimes of slot machines.
Workers on Tuesday were frantically attending to the finishing touches of the casino -- from installing the last of 1,100 slot machines and putting together the blackjack tables on the gaming floor to preparing hundreds of appetizers that will be served at the unveiling of the new addition.
"Right now I'm trying to roll with the punches and not get too excited while they finish up the last-minute things," Casino Queen General Manager Tom Monaghan said. "But we're really looking forward to opening what we believe will be the premier facility of its kind in the state of Illinois."
Monaghan said the Casino Queen invested $90 million in the first phase of what will eventually be a $160 million expansion project to try to stay ahead in the ultra competitive casino industry. If he had to boil the reason for the investment down to one word, it would be convenience.
"When you are limited to a water-based casino, there are certain things that you can't do," Monaghan said. "But when the law was changed to allow boats in moats, by building this wonderful, new facility we were able to make it much more convenient and accessible to people. We can be closer to parking and, while the gaming area and other facilities were spread out over several floors on the boat, they will all be on one floor here."
Also within a short walk on one floor is a food court twice as large as the one at the old casino. It includes the Market Street Buffet, the Prime Steakhouse, the Gateway Cafe and a coffee shop called Java Junction."The differences between the restaurant facilities between the old casino and the new one are night and day," especially behind the scenes, said executive chef Alex Lazella. "Basically, the old boat had been holding facilities for use when it was cruising, and it was built on, bit by bit, after that. Here, everything has been done first class right from the start."Monaghan said the configuration of the new gaming facility will make it easier to navigate for senior citizens. But he said he hopes that the nicer restaurants, the entertainment stage on the south end of the gaming floor and the upscale look will help attract younger clients, too -- especially women.
More than 2 million people come to the Casino Queen every year, producing $10 million in local taxes. Monaghan said he couldn't estimate how many people would come to the new place because of the new smoking ban in Illinois and the impact of the new casino being built on the St. Louis riverfront. But he said he expected to produce $12 million in local taxes its first full year of operation.
Casino spokeswoman Julie Hauser said the old casino will close at 3 a.m. Thursday. At 3 p.m., a ribbon cutting will officially open the new casino. It will be followed by an invitation-only VIP party. At 8 p.m. the doors will be opened to the public for a grand opening party that will include fireworks, a light show and Las Vegas showgirls.The old casino riverboat, which has been in place for 14 years, is for sale. Monaghan said he is negotiating with a pair of companies that are interested in buying the boat and rehabbing it to extend its life as a casino.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2626.