FRENCH LICK, Ind. (November 2003) Indiana may finally get
an 11th casino if Orange County voters say yes to a referendum
on the November ballot that would allow gambling there. The rural
south central Indiana county is home to the neighboring towns of French
Lick and West Baden Springs, each of which features a large, historic
hotel. If the referendum passes, a man-made waterway would be built
between the two towns on which a riverboat-type casino would operate,
If completed, the casino is expected to have far-ranging impacts,
as far away as Madison, which is 75 miles from French Lick.
Legislation: Indiana legislators decided in April to pass House Bill
1902, signed into law by Gov. Frank OBannon, now deceased, on
April 29. Authored by Rep. Jerry Denbo (D-French Lick), the bill allowed
for the transfer of a casino license from Patoka Lake to an historic
hotel district in nearby Orange County.
The passage of HB 1902 affected the states 1993 gaming law,
Indiana Code 4-33, which authorized 11 casino licenses: five in counties
contiguous to Lake Michigan; five in counties contiguous
to the Ohio River; and one on Patoka Lake. Of the 11 licenses
approved, 10 have been issued. The 11th, the Patoka Lake license,
has been in limbo because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which
governs the lake, would not allow a casino to operate there.
Denbo, who had supported the 1993 casino bill, almost immediately
began seeking support for transfer of the license to Orange County
when it became apparent that Patoka Lake did not qualify. In April,
the legislators efforts were finally rewarded when his peers
approved transfer of the 11th casino license privilege from Patoka
Lake to Orange County, specifically to French Lick and West Baden
In addition to Denbos staunch support, a pro-casino group from
Orange County consistently rallied for gaming there. Nick-named the
Orange Shirts, for the brightly colored shirts worn by
its members, the group made their presence well-known by handing out
candy and oranges to legislators. Their support, said Denbo, was helpful
in convincing legislators that the bill should be passed.
by Don Ward
Baden Springs Hotel entrance.
The legislators were very impressed with this group, especially
with their sincerity, Denbo said. The group was honored in House
Resolution No. 0093 for their support and dedication in securing
a casino for Orange County.
Economy: One reason that proponents like Denbo and the Orange Shirts
have supported a casino in Orange County has been their conviction
that it would help bolster a sagging economy and provide much needed
jobs for residents.
Orange County consistently has the highest unemployment in the
state, said Denbo. Were confident that (a casino)
will bring 2,000 jobs, and thats an extremely conservative estimate.
French Lick business owner and town counsel member Barry Wininger
said he has noticed that many people are moving away from Orange County
to find work. You can really tell a huge difference over the
last three years when the factories started shutting down, he
said. And those who remain, according to Wininger, have practically
lost all hope.
Wininger, who has supported a casino from the beginning, said he believes
that a casino would draw more than just gaming enthusiasts. I
look at the casino as a catalyst to get other people to come in and
do other things, he said.
As a town counsel member, Wininger said he has spoken with many business
owners who have expressed interest in coming to the county, especially
since April when the casino bill was passed. Weve had
more people talk to us in the past couple of months than we have had
in the past 20 years, Wininger said. I think that when
were done, the casino will be just a small part of what we have.
History: Like Wininger, Denbo has visualized more than just a casino
to draw tourists to Orange County. We want to make (Orange County)
the destination resort of the midwest, he said.
Denbos vision may have as much to do with looking at the past
as it has to do with looking to the future.
Once a playground for the rich in the early to mid-1900s, French Lick
and West Baden Springs were unparalleled for two things: natural mineral
springs and illegal gambling. Centered around these attractions were
two grand hotels.
The French Lick Springs Hotel Co. came into national prominence under
the direction of businessman and aspiring politician Thomas Taggart.
Taggart transformed the original hotel, which had been mostly destroyed
by fire in 1897, into a luxurious spa and resort. Around the same
time, just one mile away in West Baden Springs, the West Baden Springs
Hotel was built. An architectural wonder, both then and now, the hotel
boasted at the time the worlds largest dome, 200 feet in diameter
and 100 feet in height. It remained the worlds largest dome
until 1963 when the Astrodome was built.
Icons of early 20th century grandeur, the French Lick Springs and
West Baden Springs hotels are some indication of the wealth that filtered
through the area during its heyday. Celebrities, politicians and even
gangsters, including the likes of Al Capone, were common visitors.
But by 1934, the areas national prominence as a resort destination
was beginning to languish. At that time, the West Baden Springs Hotel
had been taken over by the Jesuits, who altered the structure and
removed much of its ornamental design. It eventually was sold to the
Northwood Institute, a hotel management and culinary arts school that
made the building its home until 1983. The property was then vacant
until it was purchased in 1996 by Historic Landmarks Foundation of
Indiana. The property, open to the public for tours, is now for sale.
Although the 101-year-old French Lick Springs Hotel has remained in
operation, over the years business has continued to dwindle. The hotels
sales manager, Edina Cloud, said she believes the resort has primarily
lost business to casino properties located in other parts of the state.
Ive worked at the resort for 18 years, and from working
in the sales office the last 10 years, Ive continued to see
our occupancy go down, Cloud said.
Like Wininger, Cloud said she supports the casino bill because she
believes it will benefit the local economy and help preserve the two
Preservation: The preservation argument, according to
Rep. Markt Lytle of Madison, was ushered to the forefront by some
casino proponents who want to ensure that the French Lick and West
Baden hotels are maintained. West Baden Springs, which has been partially
restored by Bloomington, Ind. millionaire entrepreneur Bill Cook,
is still far from being completed.
by Don Ward
Lick Springs Resort.
Lytle, who voted in favor of the Orange County casino, said that
although Cook invested $32 million in the hotel, he was unable to
find a buyer.
Mr. Cook tried to market the building after repairing it,
said Lytle, but no one wanted it. He could not get investors
because there is nothing else there. Prospects for the sale
of the property should improve if the casino referendum passes, Lytle
To assist French Lick and West Baden Springs in ongoing preservation
efforts, special provisions were included in HB 1902.
Specifically, the law will allow the towns to establish by ordinance
an historic hotel preservation commission with the authority to administer
a community trust fund using a portion of the revenues generated by
the riverboat, according to the a digest of the bill.
The bill also establishes the West Baden Springs historic hotel
preservation and maintenance fund administered by the state department
of natural resources.
Key Players: By the Sept. 19 deadline, five entities had applied to
the Indiana Gaming Commission to operate a casino in Orange County.
Orange County Development LLC, Jacobs Entertainment Inc., Tranchant
Indiana LLC, Ballys French Lick Inc., and Trump Indiana Casino
Management LLC each put up a non-refundable $50,000 application fee
for the opportunity to be considered as operator of the casino should
the referendum pass.
One of the applicants has strong local ties and may be considered
a favorite in the community: basketball legend Larry Bird, who is
part of Orange County Development LLC. Another applicant, Trump Indiana
Casino Management, already operates a casino on Lake Michigan in Gary,
If the referendum passes, the gaming commission is expected to make
a selection sometime next year. Specific selection criteria has not