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Indiana Town Bets That Its History Is a Guide to a Revival

Residents of French Lick, once a popular resort destination and a gambling mecca, hope a new casino will turn things around for the hard-luck region.

November 13, 2005|Ryan Lenz | Associated Press Writer

FRENCH LICK, Ind. — A mural painted outside an antiques shop captures a bygone era when gangsters and statesmen came to live large for months at a time in Orange County's opulent hotels.

But just around the corner, down French Lick's cobblestone streets, empty storefronts paint a different picture -- one of a county whose economy has struggled for years.

The irony that this place -- where a dozen parlor casinos once thrived -- should be the last to see gambling return after Indiana legalized riverboat casinos 12 years ago isn't lost on those who spent a decade lobbying the state for a casino.

"People need to realize that you can't look forward into the future until you remember your history," said Marilyn Fenton, 71, who owns the Village Market in French Lick where the mural was painted.

Orange County will get its wish at the end of 2006, when the 11th and final casino allowed under state law opens in a new lagoon next to the French Lick Springs Resort and Spa.

Residents hope the casino signals an economic revival for the county, which has had one of the state's highest unemployment rates in recent years.

"It's the hopes and dreams, disappointments and joys of people. The rest of us are really just support staff for their dreams and their vision," said Steve Ferguson, chairman of the Cook Group, a Bloomington, Ind., medical device maker and principal in casino developer Blue Sky Casino LLC. The partnership also includes the Lauth Group, an Indianapolis real estate company.

The Indiana Gaming Commission in June awarded the Orange County casino license to Blue Sky. The bid was the only one submitted when the process reopened in March after Donald Trump's casino company withdrew from its French Lick contract amid questions about the bankrupt company's financial viability.

Investors broke ground in August on a $250-million nautical-themed resort, and dump trucks have begun moving dirt to begin building what investors say will be a world-class resort equipped with 440 renovated rooms at the French Lick Springs Resort and Spa and 240 rooms at the nearby West Baden Springs Hotel.

For casino supporters, many of whom wore orange T-shirts and passed out candy wrapped in orange paper to lobby state lawmakers during their decade-long push for a casino, it is a sweet victory.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to the valley," Frank Land, 74, said from behind a battered wooden desk in a building his son-in-law is turning into a service station across the street from the West Baden Springs Hotel.

French Lick became world-renowned at the turn of the century, when visitors came in droves to soak in mineral springs believed to have medical benefits. The hotels and casinos were built to capitalize on the region's popularity.

The West Baden Springs Hotel drew the Chicago White Sox and Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds, who held spring training on the baseball field located on 250 acres that made up the property. Guests who flocked to the hotel after its construction in 1902 came to golf, ride horses, hike and swim.

When Land was growing up in French Lick, he carried golf bags for wealthy visitors who spent weeks, sometimes months, at one of the hotels. His father was a cook at West Baden Springs Hotel, and Land pulled weeds on the golf course.

Connections to the glory years of gambling are common in French Lick, where buildings that house the American Legion and a nursing home were once casinos, according to Orange County historian Wilma Davis.

"It's a very unique area, and I think it will attract people from all over the world again," Davis said. "One thing feeds on another, and I think this will be good for the whole county."

The empty storefronts, including an office Trump had opened during his casino bid, are evidence of an economy suffering without industry to drive it, residents say.

Orange County, located 40 miles south of Bloomington, had a 7.3% unemployment rate in 2004, the fourth-highest in Indiana and higher than the state average of 5.2%, state records show. The rate fell to 6.5% in June, and officials hope it will improve further as workers whose jobs dissolved as industry left bid on the hotel renovation projects.

Some say the county is already showing signs of a revival.

Brooks Galloway, who owns real estate companies in French Lick and nearby Paoli, said that by July his business sales were higher than in any previous year. Nearly half were to investors who anticipated skyrocketing appreciation, and interest in commercial properties has followed.

Galloway said with a peak of 70 properties on the market from his firm alone, the tide could be turning.

Fenton, for one, welcomes the change.

She opposed the casino at first, but said she hadn't been able to pay her bills for two years because too few people came to her store. Her daughter painted the mural of French Lick's bygone era, with its bustling streets, restaurants and hotels.

"You know what people want here? They want jobs so their kids don't have to leave home to work," Fenton said. "The casino will bring a lot of people back home, especially if there's something to come home to."

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