INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Gaming Commission on Wednesday selected Churchill Downs as its pick to own and operate the state’s 13th casino, a $240 million development that will be located in the west central city of Terre Haute in Vigo County.
After six hours and a couple of votes, the IGC picked Churchill Downs over fellow finalist Full House Resorts. Earlier in the meeting, a preliminary vote eliminated Hard Rock International and a bid led by Premier Gaming Group.
All four applicants gave presentations and answered questions from the commissioners. After the IGC made its cut, Full House and Churchill officials made one last plea before the commissioners went into closed session for a half hour.
Coming out of the executive session, a motion to pick Full House by IGC Chairman Michael McMains was defeated 5-2. Immediately after that, a motion to pick Churchill Downs was passed unanimously.
Carstanjen told reporters he felt that his company had the most complete, detailed bid among the four applicants. He also said Churchill Downs has been interested in operating a casino in its backyard for a long time.
We’re in Ohio, we’re in Illinois, we’re in Kentucky,” he said. “We’re in a lot of surrounding states, and we hadn’t found an opportunity for Indiana. Indiana is a fantastic state with a transparent, easy-to-understand regulatory infrastructure. So, for us as a major US gaming company, we finally found our opportunity to get involved.”
Churchill Downs plans to build what it calls The Queen of Terre Haute Casino. It would feature 1,000 slots and 50 table games and also calls for a 125-room hotel. The casino is estimated to employ 365 full-time workers and 146 part-timers. The construction project would generate 1,000 jobs.
IGC Decision Does Not Award License Yet
Wednesday’s decision does not automatically give Churchill Downs the license for the Terre Haute casino. The IGC initially awarded the casino license to Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson 18 months ago, but in June, the commissioners chose to not renew the license after Gibson’s Lucy Luck venture failed to make substantial progress on the project.
Gibson has since appealed that decision, and an administrative law judge has stayed the commission’s order pending a hearing. The IGC would be able to issue the license to Churchill Downs if the case is resolved in its favor.
In the meantime, the commission’s decision gives Churchill Downs the ability to start some work, such as applying for permits, bidding for constriction materials and finalizing construction plans.
Pending the outcome of the appeal, The Queen of Terre Haute would become the 11th casino Churchill Downs either owns or operates. The company also owns and operates race tracks in Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Churchill Downs also operates historical horse racing parlors in Kentucky and plans to offer them soon in Louisiana. TwinSpires, the company’s online gaming presence, offers sports betting, iGaming, and/or horse racing wagering in numerous states across the country.
Full House Went All Out
Churchill’s proposed investment was second to Full House’s $300 million, and the two finalists proposed the same size casino in regards to machines and tables. Full House, which announced the increased investment at the meeting, projected more jobs – 555 full-timers and 238 part-timers.
The Las Vegas-based gaming company also planned a 100-room hotel, but company officials told the IGC they expected to add towers as the operation expanded.
Both companies proposed dining options as well, with Full House proposing to build a massive greenhouse along the property’s boundary with Interstate 70. The greenhouse would give the feel of outdoor dining year-round and allow the upscale restaurant to provide farm-to-table menu items.
Alex Stolyar, chief development officer for Full House Resorts, said that the company and the development team behind the proposal has a track record offering the most elaborate proposals and then being able to see them through to fruition.
“We don’t come up here to make empty promises,” he said. “We know that our proposal is the most aggressive. We know that $300 million is significantly more than anybody else’s proposal.”
Full House initially pursued a casino in Terre Haute four years ago, but a bill that would have opened the door for that died in an Indiana state Senate committee.
Questions Raised About Top Bids
While Churchill and Full House were clearly the commission’s top two choices, the commissioners did have some questions about their bids.
For Full House, some of the questions centered around the company’s plans to open a temporary casino first, with McMains wondering if it would lead to a delay in opening the permanent venue.
Company executives said that would not be the case, and they added the reason they proposed the temporary venue was to generate revenue quickly for a community that formally approved allowing casino gaming two years ago.
The commission also raised questions about a letter it received from a Brazilian lawyer claiming to represent an architect of a Sao Paolo hotel and accusing the Full House proposal of plagiarizing the architect’s design for its half-circle hotel.
Full House President and CEO Dan Lee told the commission that there were other buildings of similar design previously built before Ruy Ohtake designed the Hotel Unique.
Lee, the former CFO for Mirage Resorts, also added the Terre Haute casino needs that kind of hotel to draw visitors from across the region.
“When we built the Bellagio in Las Vegas, we would never have built it if we thought it would just do the average win per slot machine per day in Las Vegas,” Lee said.
Churchill’s Queen May Move
For Churchill Downs, the questions focused mainly on the company’s plans to build the casino on the west side of Terre Haute. The other three proposals offered sites on the other side of town, which was also the area preferred by city and Vigo County leaders.
Carstanjen told commissioners that while the company was confident with the site it chose, it would be willing to entertain moving to an east-side site, especially since a winning Churchill bid would mean the other proposed sites became available.
He echoed those comments to reporters after the meeting.
“We understand why people went with those sites, but we love our site… If there’s a sense that we ought to switch sites, we’d be happy to consider that. But we love our site and that’s our first choice,” he said.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett told Casino.org after the meeting that he’s hoping Churchill Downs would reconsider. City and county officials liked the eastern locations because they were closer to the western half of Indianapolis, and they hope the casino would be able to draw a significant portion of guests from the state’s largest city.
“They say they can make it work, but I’m hoping they’ll reconsider now that these other properties are going to become available,” the mayor said. “Let’s see if they can’t work something out.”
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