By Mark Jewell
The Associated Press
FRENCH LICK, Ind. - Decades ago, this town in southern Indiana's hill country was the playground of rich and privileged travelers who lounged in mineral springs by day and then gambled the night away.
Gambling and prostitution flourished for nearly a half-century thanks to the influence of well-connected hotel owners, politicians and police who turned a blind eye. In its heyday in the 1920s, the area had as many as 17 casinos.
Today, there is no shortage of hard-luck stories in French Lick - evidence of economic decline is everywhere - and no absence of hope that casino gambling can again turn things around.
Downtown, empty sidewalks and storefronts line the streets. The West Baden Springs Hotel, dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1902, needs extensive renovation. And Orange County's unemployment is at nearly 9 percent - worst of Indiana's 92 counties.
"French Lick is dead," said Parke Flick, 89, a lifelong resident who takes twice-a-day walks through town for exercise. "You don't see a soul. You've got two bars and a dime store."
That could change if a proposal to bring casino gambling back to town clears the Indiana General Assembly this year.
For 11 years, Orange County residents have lobbied the legislature for a casino, each session ferrying busloads of orange-shirted boosters with casino dreams a hundred miles north to the Statehouse in Indianapolis. For just as many years, the proposal has suffered defeat, often in the final days of legislative dealmaking.
A casino with slot machines, blackjack and poker is seen as a way for the town to resurrect past glory and distinguish itself as more than just the hometown of the "Hick from French Lick," basketball legend Larry Bird.
Gambling "brought this place to life, and that's probably what's going to save it," said Dan Floyd, a Canadian from Newcastle, Ontario, whose family has vacationed in French Lick for five years in a row.
In the first half of the 20th Century, French Lick and neighboring West Baden Springs were regular vacation haunts for U.S. presidents and Hollywood stars. Four Major League Baseball teams came to the towns for spring training.
"On Saturday nights, it was so crowded you could hardly walk up and down the sidewalks," Flick said. "This was strictly for millionaires who used to come down. We little snot-nosed kids would watch them come by in their furs and go past into the casinos."
The illegal gambling ended in 1949, when Gov. Henry F. Schricker ordered state police to crack down.
Things are much quieter a half-century later. In mid-March, the French Lick Springs Resort & Spa, one of two ornate, 500-room hotels built in the area in 1902, was nearly empty as Dan Floyd's family played croquet on the front lawn. The hotel averaged just 34 percent occupancy last year.
The hotels' problems are a symptom of the economic ills in Orange County, where about 1,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past two years. Tourists bypass the area in favor of flashy new casinos about an hour's drive south on the Ohio River.
There is significant support in this county of 19,400 people for a "boat in a moat" casino - a stationary vessel on a yet-to-be-built man-made pond. Proponents believe the casino would draw enough business to support shops and restaurants along a proposed promenade between the two hotels.
"We don't want to be known just as a gambling center," said state Rep. Jerry Denbo, a French Lick Democrat.
Supporters say pending state legislation is in keeping with the intent of a 1993 law that legalized Indiana's 10 riverboat casinos. An 11th license for Patoka Lake near French Lick remains dormant because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the lake, has refused to allow a riverboat.
The bill, amended in a Senate committee on Thursday, would direct the Indiana Gaming Commission to select a casino operator. Orange County voters would have to approve the casino in a referendum.
While some church leaders oppose a casino, not all do, even those whose Protestant beliefs might normally lead them to look askance at gambling.
Denbo, a deacon at First Baptist Church in West Baden Springs and a self-described "devout Christian," argues the Bible contains no specific reference against gambling. He cites studies suggesting a casino would create 2,000 much-needed jobs.
At the Statehouse, Denbo is the chief advocate for the casino campaign. This year, prospects are brighter for the legislation because the proposal is not attached to other gambling legislation.
The casino bill passed the House 84-13, and on Thursday cleared a committee in the Republican-led Senate. Passage is expected in the full Senate, but the bill still could be derailed.
One of the orange-shirted casino supporters, Marilyn Fenton, 69, an antique store owner, is more hopeful this year. But she said this is not the end of the fight if the bill fails.
"The chances are good this time," Fenton said. "But my kids say, 'Mom, you say that every year.' So I'm here for the long haul."
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