Gary officials are making a big bet on the potential for a Buffington Harbor development and taking a gamble on whether the Indiana Legislature will let that happen.
The Indiana Legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development will release its recommendations Tuesday on any legislation to allow Gary’s Majestic Star Casino to move elsewhere in the city, freeing up land for development in the northwest Buffington Harbor area of the city.
“I would think that this would be a good time for the Legislature to be receptive to the idea,” said former Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, who is now a lobbyist for the Majestic Star.
Gary officials this month met with a legislative study committee to present its plan for a shipping and transportation facility in Buffington Harbor that would require the Majestic Star Casino to relocate elsewhere in the city.
“I think it can’t be viewed simply as a casino bill,” Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said. “This really is a bill to open up the economic development possibilities of Buffington Harbor.”
The city is eyeing land near the Borman Expressway as a potential site to move the Majestic Star. Freeman-Wilson pitched the idea that moving that casino would be more beneficial to that business and create new opportunities at Buffington Harbor.
“I think she has a valid point,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary.
Northwest Indiana’s five casinos — Horseshoe in Hammond, Ameristar in East Chicago, two Majestic Star boats in Gary and Blue Chip in Michigan City — took in a total of approximately $77.69 million in revenues in August, compared to $75.43 million during the same month in 2017, according to the monthly revenues report issued Sept. 10 by the Indiana Gaming Commission.
August revenues at Horseshoe were $32.27 million, Ameristar, $19.72 million; Blue Chip Casino, $13.32 million; Majestic Star I, $7.43 million; and Majestic Star II, $4.95 million.
Smith said the mayor was clear that there’s interest and potential in the land at Buffington Harbor if the casino could be moved.
“It would take legislation to get it off that footprint,” Smith said.
Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, said the study committee is going to make its recommendations on the proposal Tuesday and would comment after that report was made public.
The land at Buffington Harbor would be good for a development because of its proximity to Chicago and rail lines and highways, Rogers said. People have expressed interest in the Majestic Star land, Rogers said.
Freeman-Wilson said she thinks the members of the study committee understand the potential at Buffington Harbor, and hopes that will be the same with the General Assembly.
The proposal would need someone in both houses of the Legislature to take the lead of moving it forward, Smith said.
Gary has historically benefited from being a leader in the casino business, Rogers said. She said Gary did not need a referendum to allow the boats and the city was allowed two licenses.
Freeman-Wilson said Gary was given an advantage because of its economic challenges, which still persist.
Legislators have been receptive to allowing Gary to be the first to take new steps, Rogers said.
“Hopefully that attitude is still in the Legislature,” Rogers said.
When the proposal was presented to the study committee, Smith said it got positive feedback from the members and he thinks that could help build support for any future legislation.
Twenty years ago when the state first considered allowing casinos, Rogers said legislators feared they would have brought crime and had a negative impact, but that’s proven not to be the case.
“The casinos have been just the opposite of what they thought,” Rogers said.
Rogers said the casinos had to be on boats because state leaders thought it would better buffer them from crime.
“I think that they deserve the opportunity to move,” Rogers said.
There is a new view of casinos in Indiana, Rogers said, and it’s been much easier for the Legislature to better accommodate those businesses.
The casinos have brought money into the cities, the counties and the state, Rogers said.
“Gradually, the casinos have proven themselves,” Rogers said.
Rogers said she’d expect some trepidation from Gary’s neighboring casinos, and hopes some arrangement can be made so that if the Majestic Star moves, those other businesses won’t suffer.
When the state first allowed the casinos, the horse racing industry suffered, Rogers said, and the Legislature was able to create a way that a portion of the casino admission money went to horse racing operations.
Freeman-Wilson said Gary has always worked with other communities on casino issues and thinks they will be able to come up with something so they don’t see a loss if the Majestic Star moves.
Rogers said if the Legislature allows the casino to move on land, there are ways to mitigate any impact on other businesses.
“We’d be looking for that,” Rogers said.