Planned Indiana casino attracts just one bidder - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Investors led by billionaire Bill Cook of Bloomington, Ind., filed the only application yesterday to build a casino in the French Lick area.

If Indiana regulators approve, the state's 11th and final casino would go to bidders who have pledged to sink a small fortune into a casino and at least one historic hotel in economically depressed Orange County.

Cook and his partners unveiled a $240 million proposal last week to create a massive resort and casino venture.

The plans more than doubled the highest offer chosen by the Indiana Gaming Commission during a first round of bidding last year.

Applications from two other potential competitors didn't materialize. Larry Bird, a French Lick native and professional basketball legend, had explored teaming with Nevada Gold and Casinos Inc. of Houston. And Merit Management Group of Chicago also announced it would not participate.

"You always want more than one applicant," said state Rep. Jerry Denbo, a French Lick Democrat who spearheaded the legislative drive two years ago to bring a casino to Orange County.

"I'm disappointed Larry Bird didn't apply. I know Larry would have come up with a great project," Denbo said, adding that Cook's proposal matches the community's hopes and dreams.

Indiana regulators would also have welcomed a true competition, but Orange County could become a big winner in the long run, said Ernest Yelton, the commission's executive director, moments after the deadline for applications passed.

"I believe if people examine the breadth and quality of this application, they will be impressed," Yelton said.

Cook Group Inc., the medical-device manufacturer founded in the early 1960s by Bill Cook, will join with Lauth Group Inc., an Indianapolis real-estate developer, to form Blue Sky Casino LLC. The casino would be managed by Majestic Star Casino, which operates a Lake Michigan riverboat as well as casinos in Tunica, Miss., and Colorado.

The Indiana Gaming Commission is scheduled to meet this morning in Indianapolis, and Yelton is expected to provide a brief update on the application process.

A full, formal application is due May 4, and the commission has set June 23 as the date for selecting a casino contractor. A casino-hotel entity run by Donald Trump was chosen for the project during last year's selection process, but was forced out after encountering financial problems.

Yelton said the required background checks should be expedited because Lauth and its executives were examined during an initial round last year, and Majestic Star is a current operator in good standing.

That leaves only Cook executives to undergo a review before the commission could consider whether to award Blue Sky a 20-year contract.

Majestic Star would receive at least $1.75 million a year during a five-year management contract.

Blue Sky said it intends to renovate the French Lick Resort and Spa and "as the market permits" would then renovate the West Baden Springs Hotel, now a historic site with no finished hotel rooms.

The Cook family previously spent more than $35 million to refurbish the West Baden Springs property and its dome. But now the partners are talking more cautiously about hotel plans there.

The first task, if they get the contract, is to gut a wing of the French Lick hotel and build 200 rooms that could immediately house casino patrons, Steve Ferguson, the Cook Group's chairman, said yesterday.

Then the partners would need to decide whether to invest more money in additional room renovations at French Lick or build the rooms at West Baden Springs, he said.

The potential investment in West Baden Springs is "a decision we'll need to make later," Ferguson said.

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