Orange County Citizens to Cast Vote on Their Future
by ANDREA NEAL
With a month to go before the election, yard signs are disappearing and political tensions rising in French Lick.
The Nov. 4 referendum on whether to allow a casino in the historic southern Indiana resort town is viewed as a "do-or-die" issue by both supporters and opponents. Tempers are hot, accusations flying.
To those who have been lobbying for a casino for years, the referendum represents a desperate last chance for Orange County to get out of its economic slump, the only possible hope of survival for two national landmarks: French Lick Springs Resort and West Baden Springs Hotel.
The opponents of gambling are no less passionate. To them, it’s about principle — and whether Orange County citizens are willing to abandon theirs.
"Friends are losing friends," reports Robert Hoyt, spokesperson for the opposition. "It is so ugly. Really a shame." On Saturday night, Hoyt’s anti-gambling yard sign was torn to pieces.
Accounts of harassment and intimidation linked to the pro-gambling side are troubling, to be sure. But they are nothing new to French Lick, a community that before it was synonymous with Larry Bird was synonymous with intrigue and scandal.
Remember: Al Capone was there once.
In the mid 19th century, people flocked to French Lick to partake of its mineral springs waters, advertised as "miracle waters" that would heal any manner of ailment. A different kind of chicanery arose years later under the ownership of Indianapolis mayor and Irish immigrant Thomas Taggart.
Taggart turned the resort into an international destination, a place where society’s elite would gather. According to the official hotel history, "The wealthy celebrities who descended upon the little town in the Indiana hills each spring and fall came to take ‘the cure,’ to play, to conduct business and to gamble."
Yes, to gamble. "In flagrant violation of state law," the history continues, "two big gambling rooms operated across the street from the hotel, perhaps half a dozen others catered to lesser hotel guests and common folk and, indeed, at one time there was even a combination dice room and bowling alley" on hotel property.
West Baden hotel, once called the eighth wonder of the world for its six-story domed atrium, faltered after the 1929 Stock Market crash. The gambling parlors were shut down in the ’40s and the French Lick Springs Resort began a seemingly irreversible decline after that. Times changed and so did the tastes of family vacationers and conventioneers. That hotel has stayed open, but business doesn’t boom.
Now, local business leaders see a chance to repackage French Lick as an all-purpose resort, with spa, golf, tennis, horseback rising — and casino gambling, made legal by the 1993 legislature.
Rep. Jerry Denbo, D-French Lick, was responsible for pushing a bill through the 2003 session allowing Orange County to use in "the valley" an unused casino license initially intended for nearby Patoka Lake.
"We’re the poorest county in the state with the highest unemployment," Denbo says. He calls a casino "our only hope."
The casino will produce 400 or fewer jobs, Hoyt argues. And it will attract at best a regional audience, which means the money to be spent gambling could be better spent on local businesses.
Larry Bird, one of five parties seeking a license should the referendum pass, has pledged to give any profits he would earn to Orange County charity. Of Bird and his fellow investors, Hoyt scoffs, "They don’t live around here."
In the valley, where the hotels are, support for the casino is strong. A masseuse at the resort spa says she would love more business. A bartender serving drinks to a handful of customers says the same. For both, it would mean more tips.
The Orange County Citizens Against Legalized Gambling point out the litany of evils that accompany gambling: crime, bankruptcy, wasteful spending, broken families.
In an odd paradox, both sides may be right. And that makes the issue as divisive and emotional as any facing Hoosier voters on Nov. 4.
Andrea Neal, formerly editor of the Indianapolis Star editorial page, is an adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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