The outlook for Northwest Indiana couldn’t have been brighter in 1996 when the first of four casino boats opened at Buffington Harbor in Gary.
The Majestic Star Casino owned by Don Barden was the first to welcome gamblers.
A day later, Trump Casino opened adjacent to Barden’s boat.
Barden, who had grand plans for the lakefront at Buffington Harbor, is dead.
Trump has sold his casino.
Much has changed since Indiana – a highly conservative state – opened its doors to casino gambling.
Some saw casinos as the savior for the Rust Belt. While the casinos have helped, they won’t be deified.
The two casinos in Gary and one each in Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City have created jobs but not served as a catalyst for economic development.
The casino tax revenues have paved streets, built a jail and a baseball stadium as well as turned a hospital into a public safety facility. The money also has helped local government stay afloat.
But the casino tax revenues – most of which go to the state – are threatened.
An analysis by The Times indicates gambling revenue fell by $77 million during the last fiscal year. The collections were the lowest since 2002.
Why? Largely because of competition from slot machines in Illinois bars, a tribal casino in southwest Michigan, state-licensed casinos in Ohio and casino gambling at horse racing tracks.
And all the while, the Indiana Legislature sat back and did nothing.
But, alas, the clouds seem to have parted. Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, was chairman of the House Public Policy Committee, which governs casinos. Davis was about as kind to casinos as a vulture on road kill.
Fortunately, Davis is gone. And his replacement to head the Public Policy Committee – Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, seems to care.
Is there optimism for a land-based casino in Gary? Could well be.
Like any other business facing competition, casinos have to make themselves more attractive to the customer.
Dermody said they need to “make difficult decisions about how we allow gaming to continue in Indiana and be as competitive as possible. Because one thing I think for sure, just doing nothing, we’re not going to stay at the same level we are now.”
If the Legislature is to move forward, so too must the Northwest Indiana elected officials who have a stake in the game.
That includes Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who in the past has fought Gary’s effort for a land-based casino. McDermott said he did so to protect Hammond’s Horseshoe Casino, which is the most profitable in the state.
That attitude has to change if the casino industry is to convince a conservative Legislature it needs help.
That attitude also needs to change to rekindle that optimism of 1996.