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Leaders: Bill Cook Saved French Lick-West Baden

Orange County leaders are remembering the late Bill Cook for dragging the area out of impending economic doldrums, thanks to his investment there.

Orange County leaders are remembering the late Bill Cook for dragging the area out of impending economic doldrums, thanks to his investment in historic hotels and a casino there.

What many saw as an unwelcome fixer-upper, Bill Cook saw as an opportunity to leave behind a lasting legacy.

“Most people making such an investment would be thinking ‘Oh my gosh, what did I get myself into? How much is this going to cost me?  Where can I cut costs?’,” said former French Lick State Representative Jerry Denbo.  “Bill looked me in the eye and said ‘Jerry, the previous owners covered up a multi-million-dollar lobby and I get to restore it.’”

Denbo will celebrate his own birthday Sunday, a day after attending a memorial celebrating the life of the man with whom he fought to refurbish the West Baden Springs Hotel.

“Just such a common person.  One of my favorite stories of Bill, which I’m going to think of Saturday when I go there is: pulling into the Paoli Wal-Mart parking lot. And here comes Bill out with two or three bags.  You don’t expect to see a billionaire going into Wal-Mart.”

Denbo and French Lick Chamber of Commerce President Karen Kemple said Cook’s zeal for preservation may have saved French Lick and West Baden from the cycle of deterioration which had already gripped the landmark hotel.

“There was not really anything to keep people here or to bring people here,” Kemple said.  “And now we have such an influx of tourists, which also helps our current businesses that had been established for many years.  You know, they’ve increased their business.”

Kemple says Bill Cook’s legacy is a positive economic “domino effect” started by casino prosperity and reflected even in local building standards Cook advocated – turning eyesores into eye-catchers.

Stan Jastrzebski

WFIU/WTIU News Senior Editor Stan Jastrzebski spent time as a reporter with WGN Radio in Chicago and as an editor at Network Indiana, an Indianapolis news service. Stan is the winner of awards from the Associated Press, the RTDNA, the Indiana Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He hosts WFIU's Ask the Mayor and anchors WTIU's InFocus.

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