Staff photos by Joseph C. Garza
Staff photos by Joseph C. Garza
The public on Tuesday gets its chance to say yes or no to a casino for Vigo County.

With a simple question on the ballot — “Shall inland casino gambling be permitted in Vigo County?” — the day marks a turning point in the years-long effort to bring a casino to the Terre Haute area.

Touted as a much-needed provider of construction and permanent jobs, an entertainment space to pair with a downtown convention center and maybe the missing piece needed to spur further development on the city’s east side — many government and business leaders say a casino can help change the area’s fortunes.

But opponents say profiting on the vices of others will bring back Terre Haute’s “Sin City” past.

Legislative effort revived

After a failed 2017 effort to bring to Terre Haute unused gaming spots from a Full House Resorts casino near Cincinnati, Republican Sens. Jon Ford of Terre Haute and Mark Messmer of Jasper this year introduced Senate Bill 552, which was eventually passed as House Bill 1015.

The legislation calls for allowing new casino operator Spectacle Entertainment to move its pair of casinos from Buffington Harbor in Gary to a single inland location in Northwest Indiana, with the second license freed up for Vigo County.

Passed on the final day of the legislative session and signed by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb a week later, House Enrolled Act 1015 represents a marked expansion in Indiana gaming, one Vigo leaders are happy to be a part of.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett made several appearances at the Statehouse fighting for a casino for Terre Haute.

“It’s always been about the economic development opportunity for me,” Bennett said. “I did all I could to help bring that opportunity to the community.

“But one of most important parts of [the legislation] for me was the referendum language. We fought to keep that in there because I’ve felt it extremely important that the people of Vigo County decide whether they wanted a casino or not.”

The Indiana Gaming Commission started accepting applications from potential operators. The commission will evaluate proposals based on:

• Economic benefits;

• Tax revenue;

• Number of new jobs created;

• Whether the applicant plans an investment of at least $100 million in Vigo County, of which 35 percent must be spent on non-gaming amenities;

• Whether the applicant has a resolution of support from the legislative body of Vigo County;

• The financial stability of the applicant;

• The applicant’s history of community involvement;

• Any other factor that the commission decides to weigh.

The money

The successful applicant would then pay the commission a $5 million license fee and begin the process of building an inland casino.

Spectacle Entertainment and Full House Resorts both have stated interest in operating a Vigo casino. They and other prospective operators have until Dec. 1 to submit a formal proposal to the Gaming Commission.

HEA 1015 also requires the new operator to pay Evansville “hold harmless” monies for three years after the casino’s first year of operation. Payments of $1.2 million are due within the first year of operation, $900,000 in the second year and $600,000 in the third.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime economic development project,” said John Collett, president of the Advance West Central Indiana political action committee.

Collett and other members of the PAC have billed the proposed casino as an unrivaled opportunity to bring new jobs and money to the local economy.

Members of Advance West Central Indiana recently presented a study that says a Terre Haute/ Vigo casino could generate $80 million impact from construction alone.

The study, prepared by The Innovation Group for the Casino Association of Indiana, says a casino here could create 650 full-time jobs and 140 part-time jobs and have more than 819,000 gaming visits annually. It projects a total annual economic output of more than $180 million.

Local government and beneficiaries would see a piece of that.

The largest payment is from a wagering tax — estimated to be about $4.6 million. This will go to the city of Terre Haute, if a casino is inside the city limits.

With an admissions tax, a tax levied against the casino for each person who enters, the Vigo County casino is estimated to bring in more than $2.6 million. That money would be divided among:

• The city of Terre Haute, which would receive 40 percent, or more than $1 million.

• Vigo County government at 30 percent, or more than $780,000.

• Vigo County School Corporation at 15 percent, or more than $390,000.

• West Central 2025, a regional economic development effort through the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, at 15 percent or more than $390,000.

The third component of local share is a development agreement to be negotiated with local government on what and how funds are spent. That is estimated at $2.7 to $3 million.

“When you look at the economic impact of not only the construction but also the jobs it will create and the revenue it will create for the city, we’re talking about near $10 million,” Bennett said.

“That can be used for any kind of project in the city, whether it’s an aquatic-type center similar to what Plainfield has, a river walk or a variety of other things. We wouldn’t have those type of funds available to us if we didn’t have this opportunity.”

But everyone’s not all in

Not all in Vigo County are sold on the prospect of a casino, with some seeing it as a gateway to gambling addiction.

Jimmy McKanna, a Terre Haute resident, said the city and county need something to spur growth, but doesn’t feel right supporting an institution that can ruin a person’s life.

“I agree that the city needs a stimulus and economic growth, but a casino and the things that come with it will come at the cost of people,” McKanna said.

“I think we’re far enough away from a casino in Terre Haute that some with gambling addictions have been able to keep the issue at bay. But if you put one here in the city, so readily available, that really worries me.”

McKanna understands that some may think of addiction as somebody else’s problem, but said he refuses to view it that way.

“A lot of people will say that an addicts problem is their own and they need to deal with it, but to me it’s a risk not worth taking,” McKanna said.

In short, McKanna said a casino development feels like a lazy attempt at economic stimulus that preys on the poor and addicted.

“I know people will probably hate me for saying that, but it seems like we’re okay saying, ‘Let’s just bring a casino in and take advantage of the people who are willing to spend every dime they have,’” McKanna said.

One economist’s perspective

While the promise of quality-of-life of life improvements may be enough to convince some of a casino’s merits, economist Robert Guell says the benefits would likely be present but more modest.

After making it clear that a casino would likely be a net economic positive, he said both the pros and cons of a casino have been far overblown.

“There is no economist who isn’t paid to say so that thinks that casinos are a gigantic economic boon to a community,” Guell said. “The numbers they provide for the economic impact of the operations are massively overblown because they ignore the fact that the vast majority of that money would have been spent in the community anyway.

“Most of the customers of a casino are locals that would have spent their money locally, anyway,” said Guell, who is a professor of economics at Indiana State University.

And while Guell says the impact of a casino may not be as great as some would say, the negatives aren’t as damning either.

“Those people who are opposed to it tend to generate lots of sad stories with very little empirical evidence to back them up,” Guell said. “There has been one study that suggests, for poor communities, the presence of a casino would increase personal bankruptcies by a modest amount, maybe 10%.

“It’s not the world’s greatest thing. It’s not the world’s worst thing.”

So far as attracting ancillary businesses, Guell said a casino would have the same draw as a new Walmart.

“If you were in Terre Haute 10 years ago before the east side Walmart was built, there was almost nothing in that part of town,” Guell said. “It would be hard to argue that it has been a net positive for the county as whole, because much of that business came at the closing of various other business.

“There may be new hotels, there may be new restaurants, but again, it will come at the expense of reduced amounts of business along U.S. 41.”
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