ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Another obstacle falls in county’s bid for a casino

The big picture of Vigo County’s economy should not be obscured by the rugged process of bringing a gambling facility to the community.

A casino can generate hundreds of steady staff jobs and short-term construction jobs. It can attract more tourists. It can inject tax revenue into the coffers of the city, county and schools, and toward quality-of-life projects. Those byproducts of a casino will benefit Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley.

Still, the anticipated addition of a casino complex comprises just one facet of this region’s economy. Though the absence of mega factories and corporate headquarters keeps Vigo County from experiencing the peaks of prosperous eras, its diversity of employers also has helped it avoid the deepest levels of recessions. The mix of manufacturers, retailers, distribution hubs and small businesses gives the community a solid base for future growth. Those companies surround a set of core employers in the public sector and health care, from the four local college campuses to the Vigo County School Corp., Union and Regional hospitals and the Terre Haute federal prison.

So, as the nearly five-year-long effort to place a casino in Terre Haute cleared yet another hurdle this week, there is reason to exhale and feel some optimism. More bumps could come, though. Terre Haute is learning that securing a place in the gaming industry seldom unfolds seamlessly.

Good news did come, though, when Full House Resorts dropped its lawsuit against the Indiana Gaming Commission. Full House was one of four gaming companies vying for the license to operate a casino in Vigo County. The Gaming Commission instead granted in December the application by Churchill Downs to operate the casino. Full House later filed a lawsuit alleging the Gaming Commission violated Indiana’s Open Door Law during the public hearing on the applications by the prospective casino operators.

A Full House attorney sent a letter to the Gaming Commission’s general counsel saying the company never intended “to delay economic development,” had reconsidered and was dropping the suit.

That decision followed another legal move that cleared another obstacle from the casino development. Last month, Lucy Luck Gaming — the initial prospective operator of the hoped-for Terre Haute casino — reached an agreement with the Gaming Commission for Lucy Luck to have its $5 million license fee reimbursed.

Gaming Commission chairman Mike McMains expressed relief after Full House Resorts dropped its lawsuit last week, ensuring that “Vigo County and the greater community of west-central Indiana will soon benefit from this significant economic development project.” Jenny Reske, deputy director of the commission, said talks were already underway with Churchill Downs to discuss timelines and projected opening dates.

“We are free to move forward,” Reske said.

Thus, Churchill Downs Inc. will soon begin building a $240-million, 392,816-square-foot gaming facility, the Queen of Terre Haute Casino and Resort. The company expects the project to generate 1,000 construction jobs through 12 to 16 months. It will employ 365 full-time employees, 146 part-time employees and a carry $20.6-million payroll, Churchill Downs says.

Its proposed site is a 21-acre site on the city’s southwest side along Honey Creek Drive, west of the Haute City Center mall. And, that adds another possible hurdle.

Though Churchill Downs says the company likes its chosen site, community leaders and some residents say a site near Interstate 70 and Indiana 46 on the city’s east side would be better. Other prospective operators staked out east-side sites. In its lawsuit, Full House touted the superiority of its potential east-side site, noting the Churchill Downs site overlooked the new county jail and city wastewater treatment plant.

Reske said this week that Churchill Downs could file a request for a different location with the Gaming Commission, if the company chooses.

As Mark Twain once wrote, “All good things arrive unto them that wait — and don’t die in the meantime.”