After only a few months of operation, Marilyn's on Monroe has closed its doors, perhaps for good. The downtown Spokane casino, which opened in late March, announced earlier this month that it was closing temporarily to retool its all-digital approach to gaming, saying it would bring in traditional paper-card tables in an attempt to buttress sagging revenues. Now Haig Kelegian Jr., one of the casino's three owners, says the closure is indefinite and that he doesn't know if there's a possibility of reopening.
"Things have changed. The philosophy there has changed. That's all," he told The Inlander, declining to elaborate.
But what could have changed so drastically in a business that was barely open for two months?
Some have suggested that Marilyn's was, er, a gamble from the start. In April, H.T. Higgins, who owns Big Daddy's casino on the South Hill, told the Spokesman-Review that the market for smaller casinos was "flat or going down a little bit" and predicted that "you'll see most of them close within 24 months." Marilyn's has had to compete not only with the bigger operations, like Northern Quest and the Coeur d'Alene Casino, but also with the number of smaller gaming houses that are popping up all the time. (Besides Marilyn's, two other small casinos have opened in the area in the last seven months, and another is scheduled for July.)
And not only did Marilyn's have to compete with what other casinos offered, but it also had to do so on an uneven economic playing field. Sure, Marilyn's occupies a prime downtown location, at the heart of the arts district, but that location meant it had to give up 20 percent of its gross gambling receipts to the city of Spokane. In unincorporated Spokane County, the tax rate is 15 percent, and the county commissioners think even that's too high. Last Tuesday, they discussed the possibility of knocking their card room gambling tax rate down to 5 percent to encourage more casinos to open in, or relocate to, unincorporated territory. Meanwhile, casinos in Spokane Valley only have to fork over 10 percent. It's reported that the Owl Club Casino, slated to open in Spokane Valley in a few weeks, will save enough on that lower tax rate to offer its employees full benefits.
Chuck Randazzo, the owner of the Season Ticket in Spokane, calls the city's tax rate "huge" and says it could have been a decisive factor in the decision to shutter Marilyn's. He also mentions other accoutrements that the casino's location lacked, especially parking, noting that a popular show at the Big Easy could wipe out all parking for blocks. But he hits the nail on the head with this rhetorical question: "Do I [want to] walk five blocks to sit at a digital table that I'm not sure I want to sit at?"
Indeed, the issue at the heart of the decision to close Marilyn's seems to be the electronic card tables, at least judging by Haig Kelegian's explanation for the temporary closure earlier this month. When asked why the Season Ticket still uses paper cards exclusively, Randazzo says it's a philosophical choice. While he thinks such electronic technology is inevitable, he notes, "I don't think the gaming community is ready for digital cards right now. I think they still like having cards in their hands." He adds that, aside from the old-fashioned sensory experience, many gamblers distrust the electronic system, believing it could be used to cheat them. The state's gambling commission watches the situation so closely that "there's no way that it could happen," says Randazzo, but it remains a real suspicion for many players.
And Marilyn's has, from the beginning, been banking on digital cards. After all, one of the casino's owners is Mike Kuhn, the CEO of Spokane Valley-based DigiDeal, the company that produces the technology. Kuhn has said that part of his interest in Marilyn's was to showcase the DigiDeal method. But when asked why Marilyn's folded, Kuhn was even tighter-lipped than Kelegian, refusing to answer even the most basic of questions.
But digital gaming can't be all bad. In fact, because it tracks payouts and the outcomes of individual hands, it's more accurate than standard cards, eliminating the possibility for human error. The technology is used in casinos around the world, including at Bluz at the Bend, a smaller casino in Spokane, which is owned by yet another DigiDeal exec, Randy Sines. Bluz General Manager Larry Foland told The Inlander that his casino has been quite successful using the new technology. His patrons, he says, have responded well to digital cards, though he admits that about half of his games still rely on paper cards.
So was it all about the digital cards? Is downtown Spokane not quite vibrant enough yet to support a casino? Did the Rat Pack theme failed to hook gamblers? Was it all of the above, or something else entirely?
For now, Marilyn's execs are keeping mum. Asked if there are talks of reviving the idea, Haig Kelegian says, "There are, absolutely," but concludes, "Right now we are closed. We are trying to reopen, but nothing is set at this point."