The Journal Gazette
Sunday, February 24, 2019 1:00 am

Casino bill rolls on, minus city

Area sits out effort to gain available license

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – There is movement afoot in the Indiana gaming industry as lawmakers consider the most significant gambling bill since it was legalized 25 years ago. But Fort Wayne is not part of the discussion.

While legislators are poised to allow one of the two Gary casino licenses to move elsewhere, all eyes are on Terre Haute – with nary a consideration for the state's second-largest city. Or any other city for that matter.

“I know that Terre Haute is pushing very hard,” said Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry. “There are a number of legislators that are open to whether it should go elsewhere but I haven't heard anything of any substance other than Terre Haute.”

That's because Terre Haute officials have been pushing several years with representation at every hearing. Dozens of residents have driven several hours round-trip to Indianapolis to show support – often wearing pins that say “Terre Haute is All In.”

Fort Wayne and Allen County officials have shown no interest, said bill author Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper.

Senate Bill 552 would allow Spectacle Entertainment – the new owners of the two Gary casino licenses pending final approval by the gaming commission – to use one license to build a larger casino inland from its existing site on Lake Michigan.

The other license would move to Terre Haute and the company must make a minimum $150 million investment.

This would help Gary and Terre Haute tremendously but also could hurt competing casinos, like those in Evansville and West Baden.

Other parts of the legislation would allow table games with live dealers at the state's two racinos, which have race tracks and casinos; legalize sports wagering; remove a limit of two casino licenses per owner; and increase how much free play casinos can offer.

House Democrat Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said he hasn't been approached by anyone interested in Fort Wayne being part of the process. He said it's possible that the corner of the state has enough options with Four Winds Casino in South Bend, Hollywood Casino in Toledo and Firekeepers Casino in Michigan.

“It just might not be a good fit,” he said.

The only substantive discussion for Fort Wayne was in 2010 when Henry pushed for a referendum to see if residents would approve of having a casino in Allen County. After the city paid lobbyists thousands to aid in the referendum effort, legislators balked and Henry moved on.

“I was trying to find out whether Allen County citizens would even be interested in gaming as a possible revenue stream. I was turned down pretty bluntly,” Henry said. “I'm not sure if Fort Wayne/Allen County would be a viable site. If they want to talk I'd be happy to listen.”

Mostly, though, he is focused on other downtown developments.

Mike Green, spokesman for the Allen County Commissioners, said the trio have not discussed the idea of a Fort Wayne casino and feel it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further with no details or proposals.

Fort Wayne City Council President John Crawford said he has heard “zero discussion” and his campaign for mayor has no interest.

With casinos come millions in local revenue and jobs but some areas have also seen increased crime and bankruptcies. 

That's why Henry has a word of caution for Terre Haute – “I've talked to other mayors with casinos in their city over the years. There are two sides to that. I hope Terre Haute is considering everything.”

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