INDIANAPOLIS — Spectacle Entertainment unveiled plans Wednesday to construct a $300 million boutique casino, including a 200-room hotel, along the Borman Expressway in Gary, if the General Assembly permits the Majestic Star to move off its Lake Michigan dock.
John Keeler, Spectacle general counsel, told a Senate committee that a Gary land-based casino could generate $75 million annually in net new revenue for the state and create 400 jobs at the new location, growing Majestic's current workforce by one-half.
That requires, however, the Legislature to approve a sprawling gaming proposal that, in addition to relocating the Gary casino inland, would send the second Gary casino license to Terre Haute without any payment to Gary, legalize sports wagering statewide, eliminate casino ownership caps and alter some gaming tax distributions.
Senate Bill 552 was unanimously approved by the Senate Public Policy Committee following more than three hours of public testimony, many from Northwest Indiana, both supporting and opposing the legislation.
It now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a closer look at the measure's impact on state revenue.
An endorsement by that panel would send the plan to the full Senate for a decision on whether to advance it to the House.
State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, the Public Policy Committee chairman, said the legislation is "one of the biggest gaming bills maybe in the history of Indiana, with the exception of the very first one that brought gaming to Indiana."
"I believe that Senate Bill 552 is a thoughtful, practical and well-balanced approach to advance Indiana's gaming industry," Alting said.
Good for Gary
While Gary officials said they are excited by the development opportunities associated with a land-based casino located at an Interstate 80-94 exit, they emphasized that the casino move simply is a necessary part of their larger plans to transform the casino's current site at Buffington Harbor into a multimodal shipping hub.
Those plans call for using a Lake Michigan port, as well as an adjacent freight rail terminal, the city's interstate highway access and nearby airport to entice shippers to bypass the crowded Chicago rail yards and instead transfer and warehouse their products at Gary.
"What we see, and what is a distinct opportunity and possibility for us, is the ability to create jobs, the ability to increase our tax revenue and the ability to really transform both the perception and the reality of our community," said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, noted the benefits of the casino move and multimodal development would accumulate not only in Gary, but also help to improve the economy and quality of life throughout Northwest Indiana.
"It was our sole intention to make sure that this was to benefit the entire Region and to benefit the state," Melton said.
Leaders of Region organizations representing many of the businesses and workers that would construct the new casino and multimodal project told the committee they're on board.
Sitting side-by-side in the crowded Statehouse hearing room, Dewey Pearman, executive director of the Construction Advancement Foundation of Northwest Indiana, and Randy Palmateer, business manager of the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council, wholeheartedly endorsed the legislation.
"Utilizing this area (Buffington Harbor) as an intermodal facility represents that area's highest and best use," Pearman said. "We believe that very substantial investment will occur at that location, over time, in the industrial and commercial arenas."
"Locating one of the Gary casinos to a more desirable location in Gary on 80-94 will foster additional economic development for the city and job growth."
Chuck Hughes, executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce; Gary City Council President Ronald Brewer; and former state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, also urged lawmakers to approve the legislation.
In addition, Terre Haute officials were enthusiastic about the plan after several years of disappointment at the Statehouse when the west-central Indiana city could not land a casino.
Bad for others?
On the other hand, city leaders and public safety officials from Hammond and East Chicago told the committee the proposal only helps Gary at the expense of their communities.
Both Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said, unlike Gary, they've wisely spent and invested their gaming tax revenue on city amenities and programs that have made both locales attractive places to live.
They said permitting the Majestic Star to move to a more accessible location, compared to their casinos on Lake Michigan, will sharply reduce revenue in both cities, a significant portion of which is dedicated to public safety.
Michael Elkmann, president of the Hammond Fraternal Order of Police No. 51, did not mince words about the proposed Majestic Star move when he claimed the "geographical relocation of their casino will upset what we have in the Region."
"The Horseshoe Casino, the East Chicago Ameristar Casino, the Blue Chip Michigan City Casino, these are all working right now for the benefit of our communities," Elkmann said.
"Gary has nothing but a history of scandal, corruption, misappropriation, moving money around, hiding money, stealing money."
"We've got residents who are fearful to drive through the city of Gary because of the homicide rate, because of the crime rate. It's a dangerous place to be. Nobody wants to go to Gary. Nobody wants to relocate their business to Gary. They've had their opportunity."
A committee-adopted amendment to the legislation would ensure that Hammond receives no less gaming tax revenue following a Gary casino relocation than it takes in during the 2019 budget year.
The sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, promised to also provide East Chicago with "hold harmless" protections.
But McDermott pointed out that preserving revenue for local governments doesn't help the Horseshoe or Ameristar casinos if a new, land-based Gary casino attracts their players and wagers.
"For the casinos themselves, they're not held harmless," McDermott said. "If they lose because of the new Gary casino, the only recourse they have is to lay people off."