A day six years in the making finally arrived for Terre Haute, Ind., on Tuesday. Community leaders gathered with representatives from Churchill Downs Incorporated to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Queen of Terre Haute, a $260 million casino resort on the east side of town.
The construction project is expected to create 1,000 jobs and 500 full- and part-time casino jobs. In all, the Queen of Terre Haute is expected to produce a $190 million economic impact for the community.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett told Casino.org Tuesday that the biggest benefit will be what the city can do with the money the casino generates.
He said he would tell opponents of the project before that they never needed to step inside the casino and yet they’d still benefit from it. Voters in the western Indiana county passed the 2019 referendum with 63.4% support.
We’re going to take the money that the city controls and it’s all going to be quality-of-life initiatives,” he said. “Paving, sidewalks, park improvements, you name it. It’s going to be things that everybody can enjoy that will be paid for with the revenues that come from the casino.”
The casino and 125-room hotel are expected to open by the end of next year, and when it does, it will be the 13th licensed commercial casino in the state.
A Long ‘Journey’ for Terre Haute
For officials like Bennett and state Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, the road to get to Tuesday’s groundbreaking was a rocky one. That path included a couple of stops along the way.
“It’s been a journey,” Bennett said with a laugh.
In 2017, an Indiana State Senate committee deadlocked on legislation that would have allowed Vigo County, a community of 106,000, to move forward with a referendum. Two years later, though, language for the Terre Haute casino was included in the expanded gaming bill that also legalized sports betting.
Within a month of the referendum’s passage, the Indiana Gaming Commission was set to award the license to a group led by Rod Ratcliff, a longtime Indiana gaming executive, and Greg Gibson, a Terre Haute businessman and community leader. Hard Rock International planned to operate the casino for the group.
However, in late January 2020, the Indiana Gaming Commission became aware of a federal investigation tied to Ratcliff’s old gaming company. That led to a delay in the award, and when the IGC finally did approve it in May 2020, Ratcliff was excluded from the project.
The project then languished for more than a year as Gibson’s team experienced problems with financing the project and finding key personnel. That led to the commission taking the unprecedented step of not renewing the license a year ago.
The IGC received four proposals last fall before selecting Churchill Downs in a spirited, all-day public hearing that included presentations from all four groups. Still, the IGC needed to settle an appeal from Gibson by refunding him the $5 million license fee for the casino before it could actually award the Louisville-based company the license.
“It feels good to get here,” Ford told Casino.org. “Really, it shows the resilience of this community. We kept pushing, kept fighting for this, and here we are, celebrating.”
Moving to Attract Indy Gamblers
The project continued to undergo some changes even after Churchill Downs’ proposal was selected. For one, it initially planned to build the Queen of Terre Haute on the west side of the city. But city and county officials persuaded them to find another location closer to the city’s growing east side.
Bennett said that exit off Interstate 70 is easier to access than the one four miles west, where the initial proposal was to put the casino near the local mall.
It may be a small move, but local officials and Churchill Downs also believe it will help encourage people on the west side of Indianapolis to drive to them rather than to the two Caesars Entertainment racinos located about a half-hour east of the state’s largest city.
“At the end of the day when you look at the mileage and the timing it takes to get from the west side of Indy to the other Indianapolis properties as compared to Terre Haute, it’s really negligible in terms of the extra distance and time you have to take to drive to Terre Haute,” Queen of Terre Haute General Manager Mike Rich told Casino.org after the groundbreaking. “It just depends if you want to fight the (interstate) 465 traffic around the loop or you want something that’ll be easier to get to at that point.”
Rich started with Churchill Downs this month. He comes from Caesars, where he worked for 20 years. Most recently, he served as the general manager for Caesars’ Indiana Grand – now called Horseshoe Indianapolis in Shelbyville.
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