Some Portage officials are ready to roll the dice on getting one a casino license for the city, betting that a large piece of property on the city’s north side can become a major development.
The talk of a new casino in Portage began after the City of Gary recently announced its willingness to forfeit one of its two Majestic Star riverboat licenses in favor of moving a casino off the water and into the city, if the city gets the state’s permission to do so.
The rebirth of a push for a Portage casino idea began 25 years after Porter County voters shot down a referendum that would have allowed such a development in the lakeside city. Back then, the three Lake County cities who won the casino sweepstakes- Gary, Hammond and East Chicago- did so with votes in their individual cities.
Portage voters, who supported the casino, had to get the blessing of all of Porter County in a referendum. The effort failed.
Hammond, home of the Horseshoe Casino, the state’s largest grossing casino, already has expressed interest in getting Gary’s second license.
Portage officials now say a massive parcel that once was earmarked for a sports resort would be an ideal spot for a casino development. The resort planners are locked in legal battles over internal differences, and, the city has said the planners defaulted on their payments to Portage for the property
“Everybody’s looking for revenue sources,” said Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-At large, pointing to Horseshoe Casino in Hammond and the development it’s sparked in that city. “Looking at that empty (sports resort) field and looking at Hammond and trying to get that second license, I keep thinking, ‘Why can’t Portage get that?’
“I think you’ll have a big name from (Las) Vegas that would be more than willing to come to Portage.”
Oprisko pointed to available land, nearby highways and a toll road and the growing possibility the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District will build a second South Shore main line to the north, giving Portage more access to Chicago dollars.
Andy Maletta, Portage’s economic development director, watched as his father, then-Mayor Sammie Maletta, fought to get a riverboat casino in Portage in 1993, only to see a countywide referendum kill the idea.
Part of the county’s reluctance was talk of a riverboat casino bringing in criminal elements, an outdated belief, Andy Maletta said.
“It was a different time, and there was a lot of nervousness about what a casino could do to a community, which was really not fair to Portage,” he said. “We probably should’ve waited for another election cycle to ask for (the casino).”
If Portage can get a casino license, economic development would boom in the city and regionally, especially once the sports resort opened up the realm of possibilities at the vacant and potential casino site, including building a regional convention center on the vacant land, Maletta said.
“There’s a need for a convention center in Northwest Indiana, so why not there?,” he said. “There’s a lot of recreational development that can coincide there.”
Mayor James Snyder, who is facing a federal corruption trial in January 2019, did not return calls seeking comment, but two high-profile Portage officials who have said they’ll run for mayor, Democratic Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham and City Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, said they want more information and called for a cautious approach to the casino idea.
“I’m not one to jump headfirst into the casino idea,” Stidham said. “My concern is we don’t want to have a hodgepodge development. Let’s make sure the casino and whatever development it brings with it fits into what we want as a community.”
Cannon said he’s against what he called “a knee-jerk reaction” to the idea. Cannon said he’s philosophically for a casino in Portage if it will create revenue and jobs, but he will throw his support behind the idea if it’s well planned.
“There’s a lot of things to do prior to the (casino) discussion,” Cannon said. “Where’s the (potential) location? What (properties) do we have available?”
Cannon also said he wants information on the revenue a casino might generate and would it mean for increasing first responders in the city to respond to any possible needs at the site, as well as traffic patterns.
A spokeswoman for the Indiana Gaming Commission on said the agency is a regulatory commission and suggested an available license would come at the will of the state legislature.
The idea is more likely to start in Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office, said State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, adding other communities, including Fort Wayne, have expressed interested in getting a casino license.
“It has to come out of the governor’s office a (gaming) license is available,” Moseley said. “The governor could eliminate (an available license) or look for best suitable place in terms of economic development and revenue for those interested communities”
One significant step would be to show the community -- whether it’s the City of Portage or Porter County -- is behind the idea, possibly by passing a resolution that calls for getting a casino license in the first place, Moseley said.
“I think if the City of Portage, or Porter County, or whatever you want to identify as a community on this issue, believes this is in the best interest of the people who live here and pay taxes, somebody should put forth a resolution letting the governor know this is something they would be interested in pursuing.
“That resolution would let people downstate know they’re interested.”