High hopes, high stakes: French Lick Casino stakeholders share successes, challenges

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Bringing a casino to Terre Haute continues to be a big topic of conversation, and many people wonder about the impact of such a facility on the area.

Some people are all in on the casino, while others are already calling it a bust.

Photographer Bob Bruce and reporter Nicole Krasean made their own investment in the conversation by traveling to a nearby community to see how the presence of a casino has affected the locals there.

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“This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest gaming bills in the history of Indiana,” said Senator Ron Alting.

Gaming Matters; that’s the subject of Senate Bill 552, a piece of legislation that could bring a casino and all its effects to Vigo County. 

But just how much can gaming matter to one community? To find out, WTWO visited one of the closest casinos to Vigo County in French Lick, where many locals feel the casino helped bring the town back to life. 

“This was one of the poorest, most under-employed counties in the state, now we’ve got an economic lifeline that employs around 1700 people both full and part time at peak season,” said French Lick Resort Marketing Manager Steve Rondinaro. 

Aside from an influx of jobs, tax revenue has the potention to greatly benefit a community. 

According to the Indiana Gaming Commission, riverboat gaming taxes contributed to over $46 million in local funds in FY 2018 – an increase of nearly 10% from FY 2017.  

Local leaders in French Lick say that revenue has greatly improved quality of life.  

“I don’t think there’s any question about that, you know the quality of life, the availability of jobs, I mean almost anywhere you look right now, everybody’s got a help wanted sign on their door, before we were one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, and that’s just not the case anymore, basically we’ve revitalized the whole town,” said French Lick Town Council President Barry Wininger. 

“We have a new facility, a new Town Hall, new fire department police station, we have new vehicles, we’ve doubled our man power, and French Lick likewise,” said West Baden Chief of Police Kendrick Andrews. 

Improving the overall state of French Lick and West Baden has in turn brought in tourists from throughout the state and beyond.

“A 4-5 hour range is typically what we get guests coming for a long weekend or a few day stay throughout the week,” said Visit French Lick West Baden Executive Director Kristal Painter. 

A recent fiscal impact statement estimates 800 thousand to 1.1 million patrons visiting a Vigo County casino.

But the key to understanding French Lick’s economic and tourism success is to understand that it doesn’t come soley from the presence of a casino. 

“Casinos aren’t the panacea they once were, because we’re taking that pie and as we add and move casinos and the racinos coming online, Ohio now has gambling, Kentucky now has the derby city gaming, so as we cut it up more and more and more into smaller pieces, the economic impact of any individual casino is going to be lessened just by pure mathematics, could it help? sure. is it a cure-all? no guarantees,” said Rondinaro. 

“People will come to check out the casino, because it’s brand new, but I think you need other attractions to keep bringing them back,” said Painter. 

There are people in Vigo County who find a casino to be the opposite of an attraction.

Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Dennis Ticen says he lived near the casinos in Northern Indiana and saw a lack of the economic boom advertised.

“If the promise of the casino is that all this money is going to come into the community, they’ve not seen that in any stretch of the imagination,” said Ticen. 

In French Lick, leaders say negative tones have changed in recent years.

“At first there was opposition, but I mean that’s since went away, you don’t hardly hear anyone that’s objected after they see what it’s brought the community, hardly anybody objects anymore,” said Wininger. 

But Ticen says a casino in Vigo County, while alluring, is a misguided way of improving the community.  

“A casino from a city standpoint, from a moral standpoint, is just poor stewardship of the resources we have,” said Ticen. 

Up next, SB 552 heads to the Senate floor. If it passes there, it will head to the House.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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