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Gary, Terre Haute mayors remind lawmakers of economic development potential of casino moves

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, left, and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson highlighted for reporters Thursday the economic development opportunities associated with the casino relocations in Senate Bill 552, beyond just the proposed changes within the gaming industry.

INDIANAPOLIS — Key state lawmakers spent part of Thursday hashing out, behind closed doors at the Statehouse, the details of a once-in-a-generation evolution of Indiana's gaming industry.

While outside those doors, two Hoosier mayors from very different regions of the state were working to remind legislators that there's more on the table than just tax rates and gaming positions and live dealers.

The cities led by Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett both potentially could see new casinos constructed in their communities if the casino relocation language in Senate Bill 552 remains in the final version of the legislation.

But it's the broader economic development opportunities, along with the increased gaming tax revenue for the state, that Freeman-Wilson and Bennett said should be the primary focus as the General Assembly inches toward adjournment on or before April 29.

"For us, this has never been, primarily, about the casino," Freeman-Wilson said. "It has always been about the ability to develop Buffington Harbor into the North American Intermodal Gateway."

The mayor explained that for at least the past decade, Gary leaders have sought to turn a portion of its industrial lakefront into an intermodal shipping alternative to Chicago, since it has water, rail, air and highway access all near one site, along with plenty of land at Buffington Harbor for storing and transferring goods.

"The movement of the casino out of this corridor will give us the opportunity to work with the private sector to develop this intermodal facility. That is what we're focused on," Freeman-Wilson said.

"And it doesn't just create economic opportunity for the city of Gary, but it creates it for all of Northwest Indiana."

Likewise, Bennett said the construction of a $150 million casino in Terre Haute would create 300 to 400 new, permanent jobs, while producing, in conjunction with a new Gary casino, upwards of $75 million in additional gaming tax revenue for the state.

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"There's a lot of discussion out there about a variety of things and this has always been about economic development for us. It's strictly just that," Bennett said.

"We've been working on a casino for three years in Terre Haute, and we're finally to the point now where we're almost there, and I just want to get it over the finish line."

Bennett acknowledged that effort hasn't been helped by a series of news reports suggesting too-close ties between Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and individuals affiliated with Spectacle Entertainment, the owner of Gary's Majestic Star casinos and the company that ultimately could end up operating the potential new casinos in Gary and Terre Haute.

Freeman-Wilson downplayed the alleged improprieties by noting that any citizen is welcome to meet and speak with her, just as any business owner is, and she's confident the same holds true for the governor and the House speaker.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., on the other hand, believes the private flights Spectacle provided to Holcomb through the Republican Governors Association and Bosma's law firm representing a Terre Haute development organization are "borderline illegal."

"There's a reason these restrictions were put into Indiana Code. There's a reason," McDermott said. "They wanted to keep a clear wall between the elected officials and the casino operators, and that line is being blurred and trampled all over right now."

While McDermott said he generally supports a new casino in Terre Haute, he continues to oppose any relocation of the Majestic Star from Lake Michigan to a site adjacent to the Borman Expressway, because that inevitably will take market share away from the casinos in Hammond and East Chicago.

"I don't deny that there's economic development potential for Terre Haute. I don't deny that a bit," McDermott said. "It's not about Terre Haute with us; it's about what happens to the way we split the pie in the Chicagoland market."

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Financial Affairs Reporter

Dan has reported on Indiana state government for The Times since 2009. He also covers casinos, campaigns and corruption.