Groundbreaking a dream come true for Indianans - Friday 12th of August 2005

FRENCH LICK, Ind. -- Residents believing that a new casino will pump life into southern Indianas Orange County began arriving an hour before a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday, many carrying cameras and the hopes of a decade.

Some 1,000 people showed up for the ceremony, with about a dozen wearing the orange shirts that symbolized casino supporters during their years of Statehouse lobbying for approval of Indianas 11th casino.

"This is a dream come true," resident Willa Sanders said. "We finally made it. When we throw that dirt, the casino is on its way."

The centerpiece of the $250 million project will be an 80,000-square-foot, nautical-themed casino to be built next to the French Lick Springs Resort, one of the sites frequented by gamblers and movie stars during the towns 1920s heyday.

Bulldozers and dump trucks sat nearby Tuesday, waiting to begin site work this week. Developers plan to have the casino, with 1,000 slot machines and at least 25 tables for games such as poker and blackjack, open by late next year.

The state Gaming Commission gave initial approval in June to the proposal, led by Bloomington billionaire William Cooks company -- Cook Group -- and Indianapolis-based Lauth Property Group. Their plan was the only one submitted when the bidding process reopened in March after Donald Trumps casino company withdrew from its French Lick contract.

The Cook-Lauth partnership, dubbed Blue Sky Casino, also plans to renovate 440 rooms at the French Lick hotel and 240 rooms at the nearby West Baden Springs Resort by the end of 2007.

"Despite all the work, we in many ways today are just getting started," Lauth Group CEO Robert Lauth said during Tuesdays ceremony. "To say that this is an aggressive undertaking on a tight schedule is an understatement."

Cook Group plans to use its share of the casinos profits to support economic development, education and historic preservation efforts in the area about 50 miles south of Bloomington.

State Rep. Jerry Denbo, D-French Lick, said the partnerships plans for the casino far exceed what he had expected.

Denbo told the crowd that after a decade lobbying for the casino, the ceremony was like a fairy tale that "leaves even the politicians speechless."

Those arriving for the groundbreaking entered a reception tent at the French Lick resort with bronze devil-like statues on either side -- and signs explaining that the statues were a rendering of Pluto, for whom the hotels spring water was named.

Songs such as "Viva Las Vegas" played over loudspeakers until a four-piece string ensemble began playing while residents milled about sipping orange juice and water from champagne glasses.

Casino supporters have long pointed to construction of a casino as the best way to revive the two historic hotels and boost an area that has long had one of the states highest jobless rates -- at 6.5 percent for May, the most-recent statistics available.

Developers expect the casino and the two resorts to have a total of about 1,400 employees and an estimated $32 million in annual salaries and benefits.

L.A. Street said he was born and raised in French Lick, but had left the town to work in the central Indiana town of Rushville. He said the casino project gave the town "kind of a spirit of hope."

"Everybody is anxious to get this casino up, and hopefully the community will develop," he said.

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