Terre Haute Casino Proposals Generate Feedback as Indiana Prepares to Decide

Posted on: November 14, 2021, 11:15h. 

Last updated on: November 15, 2021, 08:56h.

The Indiana Gaming Commission (IGC) received more than 200 unique comments regarding the Vigo County casino license the regulatory body plans to award this week.

Terre Haute casino
A rendering of the Queen of Terre Haute, a casino proposed by Churchill Downs Incorporated in its application for the casino license in Vigo County, Ind. The Indiana Gaming Commission received more than 200 public comments on the four applications and the decision making process as well. The IGC is expected to award the license at its Wednesday meeting. (Image: Churchill Downs/IGC)

The IGC announced last month it would welcome public comments regarding the opportunity, which attracted four bidders. All want to build a casino in or near Terre Haute in the west central Indiana county. Friday afternoon was the deadline to submit written comments, and the commission posted them on its website.

Commissioners are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Indianapolis to watch presentations from each bidding group. A decision is expected after each company makes its case.

Commenters include local residents, business owners in town and out, labor unions, nonprofit organizations, and a few other groups. The four companies seeking the application are Churchill Downs Incorporated, Full House Resorts, Hard Rock International, and Premier Gaming Group.

Of the four bidders, the application that received the most supportive comments was Hard Rock. The Florida-based gaming company’s plan drew nearly 70 unique comments of support. That’s in addition to the resolution of support the proposal has received from the Vigo County Council. It also had other letters of support from local elected officials, as well as the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce.

Updated information on each bid, including proposed investment, number of gaming seats, job estimates, and revenue projections can be found here.

One Terre Haute Bid Has Local Ties

Part of the reason many in the Terre Haute community support the project is because local businessman Greg Gibson is part of the investment team behind the planned Hard Rock Rocksino.

Gibson co-founded Spectacle Entertainment in 2018 with long-time Indiana gaming executive Rod Ratcliff. The company bought the Majestic Star Casino in Gary. In the following year, it won legislative support to move the Majestic Star from two boats on Lake Michigan to an in-land location needing just one license.

Because the Majestic Star had two boats, it required a license for each. In 2019, Indiana lawmakers passed an expanded gaming bill that called for Spectacle to surrender the second license. Lawmakers then awarded it to Vigo County, contingent on an approved referendum. In November of that year, county voters overwhelmingly supported the measure.

In December 2019, Spectacle was the only applicant for the Vigo County casino license, and the company announced plans to partner with Hard Rock in Terre Haute – just as the two gaming companies did in Gary.

However, before the IGC could award the license, commission officials learned that Spectacle executives were connected to a federal investigation into illegal campaign contributions. Eventually, Ratcliff and another Spectacle executive would back out of the Terre Haute application, leaving it to Gibson to manage.

Eventually, Ratcliff and John Keeler, a former Indiana state lawmaker and Spectacle executive, would lose their gaming licenses.

Gibson Gets Hard Rock Local Support

The IGC approved the license to Gibson’s company in May 2020. But after more than a year of inaction, with several executive positions unfilled and no construction work underway, commissioners took the unprecedented step of not renewing the license in June.

Gibson has appealed the decision to not renew the license, and the IGC is set to meet Monday afternoon to discuss a possible settlement in that case.

In September, Hard Rock submitted a bid for the license and announced Gibson as a partner.

Despite the controversies, many local casino proponents are adamant about maintaining a local connection. Terre Haute homeowner Owen Roberts, in his comment to the IGC, said the county’s strong support in the referendum was predicated on that Gibson would run it.

I doubt the voting would have been the same had it been known that it could end up being awarded to outside people/businesses,” Roberts said in his emailed comments. “Keep it local, don’t bring in outside sleaze.”

When confirming Gibson’s involvement, Hard Rock officials in a statement made it clear its employees would manage and operate the casino.

Partners Tout Churchill Downs

The IGC received 56 unique comments on Churchill Downs proposed Queen of Terre Haute Casino. However, more than half of those comments came from employees of the Louisville-based company’s other gaming venues and businesses.

Several other comments came from businesses and groups that have worked with Churchill Downs. Chambers of commerce in Kentucky, Maine, and Maryland also submitted letters of support.

University of Louisville Athletic Director Vince Tyra wrote a letter of support as well. Tyra noted that Churchill Downs, whose flagship track is just west of the school’s football and baseball stadiums, has been a strong supporter of UofL’s student-athletes. That includes sponsoring the Women of Influence Program that provides female student-athletes with mentoring, networking, and professional development opportunities.

“The leadership at CDI is acutely invested into this program and has representation from among their highest ranking women at each event, including their CFO and numerous vice presidents,” Tyra wrote.

Full House Goes Big for Vigo County

Full House’s proposed American Place Casino generated 35 comments, with most coming from local residents. At $250 million, it represents the largest planned investment of the four bids.

Among the amenities the Las Vegas-based company has proposed for its casino project is a four-star luxury hotel. It’s also the only applicant to publicly state it would open a temporary venue within six months after getting the license.

The company also held a public forum last month in Terre Haute to go over its proposal.

“For once, I would like to see Vigo Co./Terre Haute not ‘poor boy’ a large project that could bring real growth to our area,” Terre Haute resident Steven Bedwell said in an email. “The great potential future for this area in Vigo Co. must have an anchor project to build around, and I believe the Full House Casino would be that anchor!”

Premier Gets Industry Support

Premier Gaming’s proposed casino received nine comments, mainly coming from officials in Natchez, Miss., where Premier owns the Magnolia Bluffs Casino-Hotel. Others submitting comments included Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association Executive Director Larry Gregory and Iowa Gaming Association President and CEO Wes Ehrecke.

Kevin Preston, founder and president of Premier Gaming, previously served as the IGA’s treasurer. Ehrecke said in his letter that he knew Preston from his time working at two regional properties “that were intimately connected” to smaller cities and towns in Iowa.

“…what I was especially impressed by is Kevin’s ability to connect with his staff and engage the citizens in the surrounding casino area to support various initiatives important to the region,” Ehrecke said.

Smoke-Free and Anti-Gaming Groups Have Say, Too

Not all of the comments the IGC received were about a specific casino proposal or about supporting a casino period.

In addition, some urged the commission to look beyond the recommendations of local officials who have been vocal in their support for the Hard Rock proposal.

I would like to see some new blood brought in to this town,” Tom Harbaugh wrote. “I’m sure you have the ability to look at all the developments that are going on in this town. If you notice nothing happens unless it benefits the Gibson or the Holman (families). We would like some new blood in our town.”

Several smoke-free gaming advocates also took advantage of the comment period to call for the casino to be completely smoke-free.

Tobacco Free Vigo and others noted that the applications seem to comply with Terre Haute’s indoor smoking ban. But some plan to offer an outdoor smoking lounge that, they say, still may cause harm to workers.

“TFV asks that in choosing a casino, you analyze the health risks and choose the casino which protects the health of its workers and reduces all exposure to secondhand smoke,” wrote TFV coalition member Shelly Stuthers in a letter. “In short, we endorse casinos that do not have workers on the smoking patio at any time when customers are smoking.”

Local voters have already spoken at the polls to get Terre Haute to this point. But it did not stop some anti-gaming advocates from using the public comment period to say the area does not need a casino.

Among them was Mike Rogers, whose subject line read “Bad idea” in his email to the IGC.

“If you’ve ever seen Back to the Future 2, you’ll know what I’m talking about,” Rogers wrote. “Poverty and crime are on the rise in Terre Haute. Not a great idea to make things worse.”