The past 12 months have seen more transformative change to Indiana's gaming industry than perhaps any year since casinos first were legalized in the Hoosier State in 1993.
Not only did Indiana lawmakers authorize an entire new gaming category — sports wagering — they also agreed to permit Hoosiers to bet on myriad sporting events anywhere using their computers and mobile devices, in addition to placing bets in person at casinos and off-track betting facilities.
At the same time, Gary's Majestic Star casinos secured permission to become the first Indiana gaming property to move from a dockside location to a land-based site, while the second Gary casino owner's license is set to be used for a new Terre Haute casino.
The whirlwind shows no signs of abating in the year ahead.
If construction proceeds as scheduled, the new Hard Rock Casino Gary will open Dec. 31, 2020, and the Four Winds tribal casino could gain the ability to offer table games and sports wagering in South Bend, pending approval of a gaming compact with the state.
A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door for states, other than Nevada, to legalize sports wagering, and Indiana became the 13th state to "go live" on Sept. 1, 2019.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, who signed the sports wagering provisions of House Enrolled Act 1015 into law May 8, placed the first bet in the state at Indiana Grand casino in Shelbyville: $10 on the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl.
Ameristar Casino in East Chicago opened the first Northwest Indiana sports betting windows and kiosks that same day, drawing bettors from across the Region and many more from Illinois, where sports wagering was legalized over the summer but regulators dragged their feet on the rollout compared to the efficient Indiana Gaming Commission.
The sports betting area at Ameristar is in a remodeled section of the pavilion that connects its parking garage to the casino, and is located alongside the Stadium sports bar and a burger restaurant, so nearly every person visiting the casino passes by the sports book as they enter and leave.
Other Region casinos also built out new sports wagering spaces during the year to entice sports fans and other patrons to place bets, watch games and spend more time in the casino.
At the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, 16 television monitors, each 85 inches wide, are surrounded by large, comfy chairs right on the gaming floor. While the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City opted to put its FanDuel sports betting center inside The Game sports bar.
On the other hand, the owner of the Majestic Star casinos is waiting until its new Gary casino opens before installing a retail sports wagering operation. But sports fans still are invited to watch games at the Majestic Star and place bets using their mobile devices.
Indeed, mobile wagering is likely to become the largest segment of the sports betting market, due to the convenience of being able to bet at any time, anywhere in the state, through numerous mobile sports betting companies affiliated with the state's casino properties.
In the years ahead, an estimated two-thirds of sports bets will be placed online, according to a report prepared for the Indiana Gaming Commission.
Ameristar again was the first Region casino to launch mobile sports wagering, in partnership with DraftKings, on Oct. 3.
However, the state is not expecting a windfall from sports wagering.
Lawmakers decided to impose just a 9.5% tax on casino revenue after paying winning bets in the hope of drawing vendors from high tax states, such as Illinois and its 20% rate, and putting illegal sports wagering operations out of business, rather than generating substantial revenue for Indiana.
New Gary casino
The long held dream of Gary leaders past and present for a land-based casino in the Steel City is underway at the intersection of 29th Avenue and Burr Street, immediately south of the Borman Expressway.
The same statute that legalized sports wagering in Indiana also consolidated the two Majestic Star casino boats onto one owner's license and allowed Majestic Star owner Spectacle Entertainment to relocate to a single, inland site.
The Gary Common Council and the Indiana Gaming Commission in late August each gave the go-ahead for Spectacle to proceed with the development of the new Gary casino, which Spectacle announced will carry the "Hard Rock" brand and theme.
When complete, the approximately 225,000-square-foot casino will feature a gaming floor with more than 2,000 slot machines and table game seats, a sports book, a Hard Rock Cafe, a 2,000-seat Hard Rock Live music performance venue and numerous restaurants and bars.
Unlike the Majestic Star, everything will be on one level, so Hard Rock Casino gamblers won't have to climb stairs or take an escalator to play a different slot machine or try their hand at baccarat after winning at the blackjack tables.
Phase II of the project, estimated to begin construction in 2022 or 2023, calls for adding an attached 200-room hotel and parking garage, and like the new casino be "first quality all the way," said Rich Ziegler, Spectacle vice president of development.
The Hard Rock Casino also is expected to employ approximately 1,800 workers when the property is fully developed, compared to the 800 to 900 people employed at both Majestic Star boats that will close when the Hard Rock opens — tentatively set for Dec. 31, 2020.
"It's going to be a very beautiful site, and I think it's going to be an impetus for a lot of economic development," said Sarah Kobetis, Gary director of planning and zoning.
State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, a candidate for Indiana governor, also is hoping that moving the Majestic Star leads to the redevelopment of Buffington Harbor as an intermodal transit hub, taking advantage of nearby water, rail, road and air connections to make Gary a national shipping alternative to Chicago.
"There aren't many communities in this country that have the amenities and the assets when we talk about transportation," Melton said. "We have it all. This has been said for decades in this community, and it's about time that we get ready to activate this."
Competition from Illinois
Gary is not alone in pinning its development hopes on new gaming amenities.
Illinois lawmakers this year authorized new casinos in Chicago, south suburban Cook County, and four other locations throughout the state, along with expanding the maximum number of slot machines in bars and truck stops, to fund a massive infrastructure plan.
It's unclear, however, whether the Chicago casino ever will come to fruition. A study of the Illinois casino law by Union Gaming Analytics determined the effective tax rate on a Chicago casino would be 72%, making it "the highest effective gaming tax and fee structure in the U.S."
At that rate, there would be little to no profit for the casino operator after accounting for operating costs — making it extremely difficult to finance construction of the casino or to remain long in business, according to the study.
The prospects for a south suburban casino appear more promising after four communities — Calumet City, Homewood, Lynwood and Matteson — submitted proposals by the Oct. 28 deadline to the Illinois Gaming Board, which has one year to decide where the new casino will go.
Precisely what a new Illinois casino will mean for Northwest Indiana's five casinos, the tax revenue they pay to the state and local governments, and the fate of their several thousand Region workers, is not yet certain.
"We know it's going to hurt," said Matt Bell, executive director of the Casino Association of Indiana, a trade group whose membership includes most of the state's gaming facilities.
"Chicago is an absolutely critical market for northern properties, and, obviously, more pressure from our western border will impact us across the state," Bell said.
"But we have great operators who are used to competing very hard against each other. This will be a new and unprecedented level of competition from outside of the state."