Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, center in blue sweater, and Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, to her right, speak to reporters in the Indiana Statehouse on Thursday.  Photo provided by RJL Solutions
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, center in blue sweater, and Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, to her right, speak to reporters in the Indiana Statehouse on Thursday. Photo provided by RJL Solutions

Terre Haute and Gary mayors held a joint press conference at the Indiana Statehouse this afternoon to “reframe” the discussion about gaming in the state as legislation that could benefit both communities heads to conference committee.

Mayors Duke Bennett of Terre Haute and Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary stood shoulder to shoulder for the better part of 20 minutes, touting the economic benefits their respective communities would reap if Senate Bill 552 were to pass conference committee and, eventually, be signed into law.

SB 552, originally authored by Republican Sens. Jon Ford of Terre Haute and Mark Messmer of Jasper, as now framed would allow the gaming positions for pair of Gary casinos, anchored in Buffington Harbor, to move inland to a single Northwest Indiana site and for a separate casino license for Vigo County — if the county's voters favor it in a referendum.

Bennett said there’s been a lot of talk about the expansion of gaming in Indiana, but said he and Freeman-Wilson are solely concerned about the economic lift it could provide their communities and the state.

“Senate Bill 552 is obviously a gaming bill and that’s where all the drama is and all the conversation is,” Bennett said. “But from our perspective, it’s also about economic development opportunities in our communities.

“In Terre Haute we’re looking at a $150 million investment, 500 construction jobs and 300 to 400 new jobs with the casino. And so it’s not only putting these people to work, but it’s got long-term benefits with revenue that’s going to come in and help us do quality-of-life projects.”

Bennett added that a casino would likely serve as a key draw to west central Indiana and the more 600,000 people living in the Terre Haute Metropolitan Statistical Area.

“People are coming from Illinois, for retail, to visit the doctor, or whatever the reason may be, and we believe this casino could be a huge part of the draw to west central Indiana,” Bennett said. “... We will not only benefit, but the state will just by changing how gaming licenses work and their impact on economic development.”

Freeman-Wilson said SB 552 has never been about the casinos to Gary officials, but is more about the opportunity to develop Buffington Harbor into an intermodal transportation hub.

“Too often, people can focus on the shiny object in the room, in this case it’s the casinos,” Freeman-Wilson said. “And there’s no question that Gary benefits from moving the casino from Buffington Harbor to 80-94. ... But for us, this has never been about the casino and has always been about the ability to develop Buffington Harbor into the North American Intermodal Gateway.”

And while the mayors were primarily dealing with the media on Thursday, Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, says seeing community leaders coming to the statehouse and speaking up for what they’d like, “absolutely makes a difference.”

“Anytime that you have a community rally behind something, it absolutely makes a difference,” Pfaff said. “A couple months ago more than 100 people came here and sat in the chamber as we were first hearing this and that made a huge difference to us. Legislators tend to spend a lot of time in this building so it’s nice to hear from our communities.”

Pfaff is a House adviser for the upcoming conference committee regarding SB 552. She said she sees it as her job to give Vigo County the opportunity to decide for themselves on bringing a casino to the area.

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