Orange County's Casino Gamble

Jobs, economic revival
rides on November vote

Profits to be used to restore hotels

By Ruth Wright
Contributing Writer

FRENCH LICK, Ind. (November 2003) – Indiana may finally get an 11th casino if Orange County voters say “yes” to a referendum on the November ballot that would allow gambling there. The rural south central Indiana county is home to the neighboring towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs, each of which features a large, historic hotel. If the referendum passes, a man-made waterway would be built between the two towns on which a riverboat-type casino would operate, officials said.

Madison cover

Madison cover.

If completed, the casino is expected to have far-ranging impacts, as far away as Madison, which is 75 miles from French Lick.
Legislation: Indiana legislators decided in April to pass House Bill 1902, signed into law by Gov. Frank O’Bannon, now deceased, on April 29. Authored by Rep. Jerry Denbo (D-French Lick), the bill allowed for the transfer of a casino license from Patoka Lake to an historic hotel district in nearby Orange County.
The passage of HB 1902 affected the state’s 1993 gaming law, Indiana Code 4-33, which authorized 11 casino licenses: five in “counties contiguous to Lake Michigan;” five in “counties contiguous to the Ohio River;” and one on Patoka Lake. Of the 11 licenses approved, 10 have been issued. The 11th, the Patoka Lake license, has been in limbo because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which governs the lake, would not allow a casino to operate there.
Denbo, who had supported the 1993 casino bill, almost immediately began seeking support for transfer of the license to Orange County when it became apparent that Patoka Lake did not qualify. In April, the legislator’s efforts were finally rewarded when his peers approved transfer of the 11th casino license privilege from Patoka Lake to Orange County, specifically to French Lick and West Baden Springs.
In addition to Denbo’s staunch support, a pro-casino group from Orange County consistently rallied for gaming there. Nick-named the “Orange Shirts,” for the brightly colored shirts worn by its members, the group made their presence well-known by handing out candy and oranges to legislators. Their support, said Denbo, was helpful in convincing legislators that the bill should be passed.

West Baden arch

Photo by Don Ward

West Baden Springs Hotel entrance.

“The legislators were very impressed with this group, especially with their sincerity,” Denbo said. The group was honored in House Resolution No. 0093 “for their support and dedication in securing a casino for Orange County.”
Economy: One reason that proponents like Denbo and the Orange Shirts have supported a casino in Orange County has been their conviction that it would help bolster a sagging economy and provide much needed jobs for residents.
“Orange County consistently has the highest unemployment in the state,” said Denbo. “We’re confident that (a casino) will bring 2,000 jobs, and that’s an extremely conservative estimate.”
French Lick business owner and town counsel member Barry Wininger said he has noticed that many people are moving away from Orange County to find work. “You can really tell a huge difference over the last three years when the factories started shutting down,” he said. And those who remain, according to Wininger, have practically lost all hope.
Wininger, who has supported a casino from the beginning, said he believes that a casino would draw more than just gaming enthusiasts. “I look at the casino as a catalyst to get other people to come in and do other things,” he said.
As a town counsel member, Wininger said he has spoken with many business owners who have expressed interest in coming to the county, especially since April when the casino bill was passed. “We’ve had more people talk to us in the past couple of months than we have had in the past 20 years,” Wininger said. “I think that when we’re done, the casino will be just a small part of what we have.”
History: Like Wininger, Denbo has visualized more than just a casino to draw tourists to Orange County. “We want to make (Orange County) the destination resort of the midwest,” he said.
Denbo’s vision may have as much to do with looking at the past as it has to do with looking to the future.
Once a playground for the rich in the early to mid-1900s, French Lick and West Baden Springs were unparalleled for two things: natural mineral springs and illegal gambling. Centered around these attractions were two grand hotels.
The French Lick Springs Hotel Co. came into national prominence under the direction of businessman and aspiring politician Thomas Taggart. Taggart transformed the original hotel, which had been mostly destroyed by fire in 1897, into a luxurious spa and resort. Around the same time, just one mile away in West Baden Springs, the West Baden Springs Hotel was built. An architectural wonder, both then and now, the hotel boasted at the time the world’s largest dome, 200 feet in diameter and 100 feet in height. It remained the world’s largest dome until 1963 when the Astrodome was built.
Icons of early 20th century grandeur, the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels are some indication of the wealth that filtered through the area during its heyday. Celebrities, politicians and even gangsters, including the likes of Al Capone, were common visitors.
But by 1934, the area’s national prominence as a resort destination was beginning to languish. At that time, the West Baden Springs Hotel had been taken over by the Jesuits, who altered the structure and removed much of its ornamental design. It eventually was sold to the Northwood Institute, a hotel management and culinary arts school that made the building its home until 1983. The property was then vacant until it was purchased in 1996 by Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. The property, open to the public for tours, is now for sale.
Although the 101-year-old French Lick Springs Hotel has remained in operation, over the years business has continued to dwindle. The hotel’s sales manager, Edina Cloud, said she believes the resort has primarily lost business to casino properties located in other parts of the state. “I’ve worked at the resort for 18 years, and from working in the sales office the last 10 years, I’ve continued to see our occupancy go down,” Cloud said.
Like Wininger, Cloud said she supports the casino bill because she believes it will benefit the local economy and help preserve the two historic hotels.
Preservation: The “preservation argument,” according to Rep. Markt Lytle of Madison, was ushered to the forefront by some casino proponents who want to ensure that the French Lick and West Baden hotels are maintained. West Baden Springs, which has been partially restored by Bloomington, Ind. millionaire entrepreneur Bill Cook, is still far from being completed.

French Lick Springs Resort

Photo by Don Ward

French Lick Springs Resort.

Lytle, who voted in favor of the Orange County casino, said that although Cook invested $32 million in the hotel, he was unable to find a buyer.
“Mr. Cook tried to market the building after repairing it,” said Lytle, “but no one wanted it. He could not get investors because there is nothing else there.” Prospects for the sale of the property should improve if the casino referendum passes, Lytle said.
To assist French Lick and West Baden Springs in ongoing preservation efforts, special provisions were included in HB 1902.
Specifically, the law will allow the towns to “establish by ordinance an historic hotel preservation commission with the authority to administer a community trust fund using a portion of the revenues generated by the riverboat,” according to the a digest of the bill.
The bill also “establishes the West Baden Springs historic hotel preservation and maintenance fund administered by the state department of natural resources.”
Key Players: By the Sept. 19 deadline, five entities had applied to the Indiana Gaming Commission to operate a casino in Orange County. Orange County Development LLC, Jacobs Entertainment Inc., Tranchant Indiana LLC, Bally’s French Lick Inc., and Trump Indiana Casino Management LLC each put up a non-refundable $50,000 application fee for the opportunity to be considered as operator of the casino should the referendum pass.
One of the applicants has strong local ties and may be considered a favorite in the community: basketball legend Larry Bird, who is part of Orange County Development LLC. Another applicant, Trump Indiana Casino Management, already operates a casino on Lake Michigan in Gary, Ind.
If the referendum passes, the gaming commission is expected to make a selection sometime next year. Specific selection criteria has not been announced.



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