Character First in Casino Decision

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for May 4 and thereafter
700 words

INDIANAPOLIS — Let’s hope the Indiana Gaming Commission is less impressionable than some Orange County residents, who’ve been hypnotized by Donald Trump’s grand vision for a casino complex in French Lick.

"We’re not supposed to say, but we want Trump," one of those residents, Geneva Street, was quoted saying in the April 28 Indianapolis Star. "I don’t care if the other two drop out as long as we have Trump."

Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts is one of three groups that submitted confidential bids April 23 to the Indiana Gaming Commission, which will decide this year on a casino operator for the southern Indiana community.

Also in the hunt are Orange County Development, a partnership anchored by Indiana basketball legend Larry Bird, and Lost River Development, which has French ties. All three released some information about their proposals, but the full details won’t be aired until a hearing in July.

It’s a three-way contest with more drama than "The Apprentice," and the promise of jobs for as many as 500 people.

The plot centers around a small Indiana town that was once a vacation spot for the rich and famous, but fell on hard times and has been struggling to survive. The happy ending residents have in mind? To rebuild French Lick as an all-purpose resort, with spa, golf, tennis, horseback riding — and gambling.

In 2003, the Indiana General Assembly agreed to transfer an unused riverboat casino license to French Lick for use on a man-made lake if Orange County voters agreed in a referendum. They did last November, arguing that a casino would help the town regain its reputation as a convention center.

The Orange County Development proposal, the price tag of which is not yet public, envisions a 50,000-square-foot casino, up to 1,200 slot machines and a Larry Bird Museum. Bird is from French Lick, still has family in the area and is one of Indiana’s favorite sons. Lost River has proposed a $40 million casino development with a nautical theme (perhaps unaware that Indiana is landlocked) a 50,000 square-foot casino and 600 slot machines. Trump has proposed a $124 million investment, including 1,000 slot machines and an entertainment lounge.

Because Trump’s plan includes buying and renovating the West Baden Springs Hotel, the architectural landmark once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, some preservationists are swooning. The deteriorating hotel with domed atrium has been partially restored, but its complete rehabilitation awaits a buyer with a love of the past and deep pockets.

At first blush, Trump’s pockets appear deepest, but it would be a huge mistake to let dollar signs dictate the selection process.

Under Indiana law, the commission must base its decision to grant a license on "the character, reputation, experience and financial integrity" of the applicant along with the fiscal soundness of the plan and the likelihood of maximizing revenues for the state.

It’s no accident that the law lists character first. That means responsibility, honesty, integrity. In considering character, one question to consider: Which of the three applicants is concerned more about the long-term success of Orange County than the short-term profit potential for himself?

This casino project has never been just about maximizing profits. It’s about revitalizing a depressed part of the state where unemployment exceeds 11 percent. It’s about creating an environment that will allow two significant landmarks — West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Springs Resort — to survive. It’s about forging a less commercial model for casino development, using a process in which local leaders have input and monitoring capability.

The Orange County casino should be distinctly Indiana, a place where Hoosier families can go for vacations centered around hiking, golfing, skiing and tennis. Gambling shouldn’t be the main attraction, or even the most visible one. The last place French Lick needs to emulate is Las Vegas — or Atlantic City where, not incidentally, Trump’s casinos are struggling financially.

The Historic Hotel Preservation Commission, comprised of Orange County citizens, will make a non-binding recommendation before state regulators issue a license.

Don’t be blinded, Orange County, by the glitz and glamour of Donald Trump. Compare the character of all three applicants before taking a side.

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