Wednesday, April 16, 2003

French Lick dares to breathe

After 15 years, depressed resort has real shot at riverboat casino

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The arrival of a bunch of one-arm bandits could mean salvation for French Lick, Ind., the depressed, once-popular resort 150 miles west of Cincinnati.

The Indiana Senate approved a bill Monday that could put Indiana's 11th riverboat casino in Orange County within two years.

Residents have been trying for almost 15 years, as tourism slowed to a trickle and jobs dried up, to get the project approved.

The big thing here is economic development," Alan Barnett of the French Lick-West Baden Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday. "We feel like this will create a domino affect."

Indeed, gambling boats in other Ohio River towns, such as Lawrenceburg, Rising Sun and Vevay, have generated millions of dollars for roads and development.

"Certainly, that's true," said Larry Kinser, general manager of Argosy Casino in Lawrenceburg. "Lawrenceburg needed a shot in the arm before we opened . . . Casinos can be good neighbors."

Kinser says a new casino - even if it's about four hours away - might have an impact on business, but he doesn't consider French Lick direct competition.

Instead, every new casino creates energy and helps other jurisdictions realize that gaming can be a positive economic force, he said.

"I don't know how large to anticipate (French Lick's) market," Kinser said. "I don't know if they are planning to be a regional market or extending their reach into Indianapolis."

One thing French Lick and neighboring West Baden Springs already have going for them is a long history as a tourist destination. Where other casinos have had to market themselves as a resort, the French Lick region for years has been a getaway for its natural springs, golf and skiing.

But the town has suffered plenty in the last decade, with one of its biggest employers closing two plants and unemployment climbing to the top of Indiana charts at 9.9 percent.

The French Lick Springs resort estimates it has lost $1.5 million in group business to Caesars Indiana, across the river from Louisville, Barnett said.

If the riverboat gets built, it will be 50 miles from any river big enough to float it.

The so-called boat, which would be surrounded by a man-made lake, doesn't have to be equipped with a motor, doesn't have to move and doesn't even have to float, as long as it resembles a riverboat, Barnett said.

Despite the excitement over its prospect, the casino isn't a sure thing.

Indiana's governor still must sign off on the bill, and then Orange County voters must approve the casino in a referendum that could come as soon as September.

Jenny Arnold, spokeswoman for the Indiana Gaming Commission, which regulates the state's $1.8 billion casino industry, says fiscal studies show the French Lick-West Baden Springs casino would be Indiana's smallest, with about $50 million in gaming revenue.

Casino Aztar in Evansville, now the smallest of the five Ohio River gambling boats, generated $105 million in revenue in 2002.

Under Indiana law, the commission will select the casino developer and operator once the casino is approved.

"The commission has not had time to do its own independent analysis," Arnold said of the financing. "We do take a look to make sure the project and applicants fit with the community."


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