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Terre Haute Gambling On Casino Bill's Success

Terre Haute courthouse

A bill at the statehouse would move a casino license from Gary to Terre Haute. (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News)

Terre Haute is gambling on a monumental gaming bill moving forward at the statehouse that leaders hope will help the struggling community hit the jackpot when it comes to economic development.

Legislators made big changes to the bill this week, which would move a casino license from Gary to Terre Haute.

But, some worry what could help a couple Indiana communities could hurt far more.

Terre Haute Hoping Casino Will Provide Much-Needed Economic Boost

When you walk through downtown Terre Haute these days, the city streets look quite different than just a few years ago. 

"Ten years ago it was kind of like tumbleweeds rolling down Wabash Avenue," says lifelong resident and local business owner Mic Orman. 

There’s more foot traffic and businesses, and the county’s working on building a new convention center.

But, while there are signs of investment, state data shows this is still a community that’s struggling.

Vigo County ranked second to last in the state for median income in 2017. And, it had the third highest poverty rate in Indiana that same year.

Like many other mid-sized Midwestern towns, Terre Haute is still working to recover from a series of setbacks.

"The economy’s been slow, we had a flood here in 2008 and that hurt things," Orman says. "We’ve had some industry move out, but we’ve had some industry move in as well."

That’s why some residents and local leaders are going all-in on a gaming bill at the statehouse that they think has the potential to turn things around.

"It would be a great economic development tool because it would give us extra cash we can use toward economic development, and extra revenue for our schools, and for our local government to help us compete with communities like Evansville and Ft. Wayne," says State Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute) 

Ways And Means Makes Major Changes To Casino Bill

Legislators amended the bill this week to give Vigo County more of a say in how the proposed casino would take shape.

Under the proposal, a Gary casino would pay $50 million to move inland, and must give one of its two licenses to Terre Haute.

Vigo County voters would have to approve the casino through a referendum, which could happen as early as November.

"It is very important to me that Vigo County, that the community of Vigo County, has the opportunity to participate in these discussions, they have the opportunity to find an operator that meets the community’s needs," says Rep. Todd Huston (R-Fishers), co-chair of House Ways and Means. 

An advisory board made up of local leaders would get to choose three casino operators they feel comfortable with, then those operators would bid on the Terre Haute license. The minimum bid would be $25 million. 

"I don’t presume to know what the license value is," Huston says. "I’d like to see it done in a competitive marketplace"

And while legislators from Vigo County say they’re happy with the bill’s changes, others still have concerns.

Some worry about how an additional casino in the state, coupled with Gary moving its facility inland, will impact existing gaming facilities in the state.

"The tax provisions in this bill do not offset the potential revenue impact we’re going to see in Michigan City," says Ryan Soultz from Boyd Gaming, which owns Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City. 

And some legislators worry about people losing their jobs as a result of the Gary casino’s move. An amendment that would ensure employees at that facility a job at the new inland location failed.

Supporters of the gaming expansion insist it’s good for the entire state – it also legalizes sports wagering, which would bring in about $12 million a year. Although the overall impact of the bill would only amount to about one-third of one percent of expected state tax collections.

But Ford rejects the notion that building a new casino in Terre Haute will hurt other communities.

"At the end of the day I don’t think a Terre Haute casino affects Evansville in the way that some might think," he says. 

More changes are expected as the bill continues to move forward at the statehouse.

And people in Terre Haute are anxiously waiting to see whether the chips will fall in their favor.

"I think the local community for the most part is really behind the idea of a casino," says Brandon Halleck, who owns a dance studio in Terre Haute. 

He's hopeful the casino will make Terre Haute more of a destination – one where people will spend money at local hotels, restaurants and businesses. 

 

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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