BY RACHEL MELCER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FLORENCE, Ind. - Worried that millions in gaming tax revenue will pass them by, residents want to incorporate this tiny community.
That would make it a "town" entitled to share state and county revenues from the $150 million Hollywood Park-Boomtown Inc. riverboat casino and resort complex to open here in summer 2000.
Incorporation also would give the community of about 300 strung along Ind. 156, 60 miles southwest of Cincinnati, the power to tax and control their growth through zoning.
It's the inevitable result of four years of successful lobbying by hundreds of residents of Switzerland County - the state's second-poorest county - at the Indiana Gaming Commission.
They received the casino license in September.
In Florence, perched on porch gliders or folding chairs on driveways and near marina slips, many people cross their arms and speak of the evils of gambling; they don't want their quiet lifestyle disturbed.
"I think (gambling) is a cancer on society, myself," said Bob Wheeler, gazing at the sun-dappled water on a peaceful late-fall day at his Turtle Creek Harbor marina. "People are taking their cookie-jar money and spending it on the boats, instead of spending it in the local restaurant or curio store."
That, however, is no longer the issue. Florence residents want public money and jobs, and envy the rewards of casinos upriver in Rising Sun and Lawrenceburg.
"Maybe we can control some of that - help bring fast-food places and other businesses and put them where we want them - if we are a town," Mr. Wheeler continued.
With local rather than county zoning, Florence could create incentives and development zones and increase the likelihood that tax-generating strip malls and gas stations would go up within town limits - but as far as possible from residents' quiet porches and wooded acreage.
"We figure we're going to get all of the traffic, so we ought to get some of the money," said Larry Stewart, wastewater treatment manager and head of the incorporation steering committee that will present its plan to the Switzerland County Commission next month. "We want to control our own destiny."
Florence would be the first Indiana town to incorporate to manage and profit from a casino, said Jack Thar, executive director of the state gaming commission.
Hollywood Park-Boomtown officials regard the effort as a local concern, because the incorporation of Florence would not affect their revenue-sharing agreement with the state and county. The casino company already has agreed to provide a medical clinic, equipped fire station and upgraded roads for the area.
"We've already committed a significant amount of money to the county to spend as they wish," said spokesman Bob List. "Florence will be, I feel confident, a recipient of some of those funds."
Sharing the wealth
Switzerland County need not share riverboat revenue with its towns, but the county adopted that policy in its license application. Dearborn and Ohio counties also have municipal tax-sharing accords.
Switzerland County, with a population of about 8,000 and an annual operating budget of about $1 million, will receive an estimated $12.3 million in the casino's first year of operation.
Ten percent is earmarked for the county's currently incorporated towns: Vevay, with about 1,500 residents, gets 7 percent; Patriot, population near 200, receives 3 percent.
County Council President Michael Jones said he expects an incorporated Florence to get a share drawn directly from the county, rather than from that 10 percent.
So long as they do not lose any of their take, Vevay officials say they are unconcerned with Florence incorporation plans.
"I don't think it would be a problem at all," said Hilbert Scudder, Vevay town council president. "(Vevay and Florence) have gotten along well up to this point, and I can't say there's going to be any rivalry if they incorporate."
Unincorporated Florence depends on county and York Township allocations for road repairs, utilities, schools and emergency services. Florence's businesses - a small machine shop, a general store, three marinas and a gas station - contribute little to the local economy.
As an incorporated town, Florence could set and fund its high-priority projects. Cracked, narrow streets and sidewalks would be lighted, widened and repaired. Public water might replace wells and cisterns.
Florence could expand the sewer system finished last week after five years of county-sponsored planning and grant applications. With zoning and ordinance authority, Florence officials could require owners of a few ramshackle homes to repaint, fix boarded windows and remove old cars heaped in yards.
Those are the kinds of restrictions that incorporation opponents fear.
Paul Vernon Chase, 68, lives just inside the boundary of what might become the town. He has no problem with incorporation for others, but he doesn't want to be told he can't hunt or keep cattle on his 30 acres.
Sitting atop the long incline that serves as his driveway, overlooking a small lake, Mr. Chase said he and a few others just want to be left alone.
That's how he likes it; sitting and talking with his family. But if the community votes for incorporation, they'll go along, he said.
"We won't be divided. Not in a small town like Florence." Mr. Chase and a few neighbors objected at a September public meeting where signatures were gathered as the first step toward creating the "Town of Florence."
The community was laid out in 1817 by Benjamin Drake and incorporated as New York. It was renamed Florence in the 1840s.
The town's incorporated status lapsed years ago when its board stopped meeting.
This time, with riverboat-spurred development, everyone interviewed said a town board would have plenty to do.
Taking over duties
In addition to zoning, Indiana law would require a town board to take over road maintenance, health protection, police and fire service, and some utilities - all duties now handled by the county and township.
With casino cash, fulfilling those responsibilities should be no problem.
In Rising Sun, 23 miles upriver and home to Grand Victoria Casino and Resort, more than a half-dozen town committees are working on development projects.
Argosy Casino and Hotel, which the state gaming commission calls the nation's most successful riverboat, may help fund a conference center, hotel and massive redevelopment in Lawrenceburg.
"They have a problem spending all their money," said Mr. Stewart, the head of Florence's incorporation committee who is seeking advice from Rising Sun officials. "They've volunteered to help us in any way they can."
For now, his committee is focused on incorporation.
More than two-thirds of Florence's roughly 70 landowners signed on to the plan - complying with state law that says at least 50 landowners must agree to incorporate. The required survey is complete and a census is under way, Mr. Stewart said.
If the Switzerland County Commission approves next month, the proposal will be forwarded to the Indiana General Assembly. "Normally, if the county commission approves it, the General Assembly will just rubber-stamp it," said Mr. Wheeler, an incorporation steering committee member.
An incorporated town of Florence must present its first budget to the state by March 1 in order to collect taxes in 2000.
Working toward an annual budget of $35,000, which would be enough to provide the required public services, and not including any income from the riverboat, the committee estimated a property tax levy of about $1 per $1,000 of assessed value. That translates into $15 to $30 per year for a typical home, Mr. Wheeler said.
'It hurts families'
With gaming tax revenue, Florence would have money to spare - but not everyone is happy with the source.
"Everybody here has made a good living over the years," Mrs. Willis said. "I'm all in favor of prosperity. But not from gambling and drinking . . . I don't believe in it. It hurts families. What's money, if you're not happy?"
Sitting around their dining room table, just home from Christmas shopping, Stanley and Margaret Turner said they didn't mind gambling and they're glad the riverboat will bring jobs.
Mr. Turner, 66, recalled when Florence had five groceries, two barbershops and other stores. He worries about traffic outside his Ind. 156 home, but he looks forward to having a new medical clinic and other services nearby.
Others, such as Preacher Harold Rutlege and the 40 or so members of Florence Church of Christ - the community's only house of worship - say gambling will take a heavy toll.
"I hear story after story of people going home (from existing casinos) after losing their life's savings," Preacher Rutlege said. "I don't see how we can take something that's so devastating to our families and our community, and say it's going to lead to something good."
Bending down to pet the town dog - a friendly, stray chow mix called Bear - he surveyed the quiet landscape below his church and appreciated passing motorists' wave to one another.
He called a greeting to both.
"(With this casino), everybody's not going to know everybody anymore," Preacher Rutlege said. "Our little old town isn't going to be the little old town we know."