INDIANAPOLIS — Everything is on the table when it comes to the future of casino gaming in Northwest Indiana and across the state.
A key Hoosier lawmaker is not ruling out the possibility that the General Assembly next year will permit Gary to relocate the Majestic Star casinos to a Borman Expressway exit to clear Buffington Harbor for an intermodal transportation development.
Nor is state Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, chairman of the House Public Policy Committee, which reviews and approves gaming legislation, yet taking a definite position on reassigning the second Gary casino license to Hammond, Portage or anywhere else.
"People have some good ideas about all sorts of stuff," Smaltz said in an exclusive interview with The Times.
"I wouldn't rule out any piece of legislation, any concepts."
Smaltz said he's approaching the legislative session that begins in January with "a super open mind" about every issue that's likely to come before the committee he has led for the past two years.
He acknowledged hearing about the recommended Gary casino move, as well as the license interest from other communities, but said he won't be taking a stance on those ideas until he can read the actual proposed laws necessary to implement them.
"So far, everybody I've talked to about that has been well-reasoned, so I look forward to some well-reasoned language coming our way," Smaltz said.
Once he has a proposal, Smaltz explained he will work through what is good about it and what is bad about it, and only then consider whether to bring it before his committee for a decision on revising and advancing it to the full House.
"I need to see the argument for how it helps Hoosiers, and then we'll work through the process," Smaltz said.
Gary leaders contend that moving the Majestic Star out of Buffington Harbor is the first stage in a potentially transformative project that could revitalize the Steel City as a national transportation hub and produce considerable tax revenue for the state.
The tentative plan, endorsed last month by a legislative study committee, calls for developing a Lake Michigan port at Buffington Harbor, as well as an adjacent freight rail terminal, that combined with the city's interstate highway access and nearby airport will entice shippers to bypass the crowded Chicago rail yards and instead transfer and warehouse their products at Gary.
"Gary is uniquely situated to serve as an eastern alternative intermodal freight hub for rail companies, allowing them to move the products faster and cheaper," said state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary.
At the same time, officials in Hammond and Portage have expressed interest in acquiring the second Gary casino license if the two current Majestic Star boats are permitted to relocate to a single, consolidated location away from Buffington Harbor.
The second Gary license is a remnant of the early days of casino gaming in Indiana when the boats were required to sail. Having two boats allowed Gary, which led the push for Hoosier casinos, to always have one at the dock open for boarding.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the Horseshoe Casino in his city consistently generates the most revenue and correspondingly pays the most in gaming taxes to the state.
As such, McDermott insisted any talk of reassigning the second Gary casino license should start and end with Hammond, since the city has shown it is best positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.
On the other hand, Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko believes a casino in Porter County could anchor a destination resort near Interstate 94, and generate adjacent development and tax revenue for the city, county and state.
Horseshoe Casino Sr. Vice President and General Manager Dan Nita is considerably less enthusiastic about the prospect of reallocating a Gary casino license.
He said moving a casino license — which never has been done in the 25 years that casino gaming has been legal in Indiana — has the potential to significantly disrupt the state's gaming marketplace and endanger the significant investments made by current operators.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly will hold a one-day meeting next week to swear in its recently elected members ahead of the four-month session that begins next year.