Flight deck: Churchill Downs Inc. has proposed a 10-story hotel in their casino resort that will include a rooftop lounge and pool. Submitted rendering
Flight deck: Churchill Downs Inc. has proposed a 10-story hotel in their casino resort that will include a rooftop lounge and pool. Submitted rendering
Securing a casino in Vigo County has been in the works in earnest since 2017 — and it’s not always been a smooth road.

The effort that included debates in the Indiana General Assembly in 2019 eventually led to a law allowing the Indiana Gaming Commission to award a gaming license in 2020 to Spectacle Jack, later renamed Lucy Luck Gaming LLC.

Lucy Luck, primarily owned by Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson, looked like it was headed toward construction of a new casino in Vigo County. But the commission then denied Lucy Luck’s license renewal in June 2021, saying no qualified executive team was in place and saying Lucy Luck’s financing was incomplete.

That denial for license renewal brought an appeal in July 2021 from Lucy Luck, with an administrative law judge staying the commission’s order.

With Lucy Luck’s appeal still pending, the Gaming Commission in late November picked a new casino operator — Churchill Downs. That, in turn, brought a lawsuit — filed Dec. 17 — from license competitor Full House Resorts. Full House argues the IGC’s decision was not made in compliance with Indiana’s Open Door Law.

On Dec. 21, the commission OK’d a settlement with Lucy Luck.

A look back

Now, the Full House lawsuit appears to be the last roadblock to actual construction of a casino in Vigo County.

Here’s a look back at bringing a casino to the Wabash Valley.

• 2017: Full House Resorts attempts to bring gaming to Terre Haute, seeking to move some of its unused licensed gaming positions here from another Indiana casino. The satellite casino idea, however, stalls in the General Assembly.

• January 2019: A Terre Haute casino effort is rekindled, with the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce announcing the “Terre Haute Is All In” initiative and web presence.

Spectacle Entertainment, formed in 2018, shows an interest in a Vigo County license. Gibson was principal investor in Spectacle and working with Rod Ratcliff, former chairman and CEO of Centaur Gaming.

Spectacle has obtained The Majestic Star Casino and The Majestic Star Casino II licenses in Gary Indiana. It suggests splitting the licenses, moving one of them from Gary’s Buffington Harbor to an inland Gary location with convenient interstate access. The second license would go to the Terre Haute area in Vigo County.

• Feb. 13, 2019: A state analysis estimates 800,000 to 1.1 million people would visit a proposed Vigo County casino annually, generating $85 million to $105 million in adjusted gross receipts each year.

That numbers come from a fiscal impact statement released by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency for pending legislation. That legislation eventually will become part of a sweeping gaming bill that, among other things, authorizes a casino in Vigo County if voters there approve. It also would allow the Majestic Star to move inland.

• Apr 24, 2019: The Indiana House approves the omnibus gaming bill by a 59-36 vote and the Senate later does the same by a 37-12 vote. As a result, Spectacle can use its Gary licenses to locate a casino inland. The other license can go up for competition in Vigo County.

• May 9, 2019: Gov. Eric Holcomb signs gambling legislation into law — the last day the bill was eligible for action. The changes in House Enrolled Act 1015 are widely considered to be among the most significant since the state authorized riverboat casinos in 1993.

• July 10, 2019: Some members of the Vigo County business community begin an effort to rally support for a yes vote in a November casino referendum. The formation of the Advance West Central Indiana Political Action Committee is announced. It urges Vigo residents to “Vote yes on #1,” in a reference to the casino question on the Nov. 5 ballot.

• Oct. 14, 2019: The pro-casino PAC has raised $162,200, according to a pre-election finance report filed Oct. 14 with the Indiana Secretary of State. The largest single contribution during the reporting period, at $62,500, was from Spectacle Entertainment. Organized labor also made significant contributions.

• Nov. 5, 2019: Vigo County voters approve casino gaming for the Terre Haute area. The vote goes approximately 63% to 37% in a casino’s favor.

• Dec. 2, 2019: Spectacle Jack LLC files the only application for a Vigo County casino, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission. Applying for the license requires a $50,000 fee, and the successful applicant would pay the commission a $5 million license fee. The state has set a $100 million minimum investment on the part of the operator.

• Jan. 7, 2020: The Indiana Gaming Commission announces it will host a Feb. 7 meeting at the Vigo County Public Library to consider the lone license application by an arm of Spectacle.

A wrench in the works

• Jan. 24, 2020: The Vigo County casino project goes on hold as the Gaming Commission announces an investigation into Spectacle Entertainment or into individuals within Spectacle. The state agency posts an item on its website announcing its Feb. 7 commission meeting in Terre Haute will not take place.

The information that gave rise to the Gaming Commission’s probe became public in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. There, Charles O’Neill of Strategic Campaign Group Inc. pleaded guilty to conspiring in a 2015 scheme to illegally funnel more than $15,000 from an Indianapolis-based gaming company to a campaign for a candidate for the U.S. House from Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District.

Involved in the scheme, the government says, were “Person A ... the vice president and general counsel of Company A, a gaming corporation formed in Delaware and based in Indianapolis, IN.”

The company and individual were not named in court documents, but the Indiana Gaming Commission said it understood the company in question to be Centaur Gaming. Some of the key people from Centaur now operate Spectacle Gaming “currently undertaking a land-based casino project in Gary and pursuing the new casino license in Vigo County,” the commission says.

The IGC says it “has begun a review pursuant to its statutory responsibilities into this matter.”

Companies split

• March 13, 2020: An amended casino license application filed with IGC seeks to remove Spectacle Entertainment CEO/Chairman Rod Ratcliff and VP/General Counsel John S. Keeler from any involvement in subsidiary Spectacle Jack LLC. According to the IGC, the components of the application, such as design and capital investment, do not change.

• May 15, 2020: The Indiana Gaming Commission unanimously awards a casino operator’s license to Terre Haute-based Spectacle Jack LLC, now owned by Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson and no longer a subsidiary of Spectacle Entertainment of Indianapolis.

Gibson and his company outline a plan to build a 100,000-square-foot, $120 million enterprise to be operated under the Hard Rock International brand and called the Rocksino. Groundbreaking is expected in September of 2020 and the casino is scheduled to open in September 2021.

Gibson says he previously he had little interest in owning a casino, but he sees the opportunity to bring a major development to his home town.

• Sept. 14, 2020: Spectacle Jack announces plans for a non-smoking Rocksino in Terre Haute. To comply with Vigo County and Terre Haute’s Clean Air ordinances, which prohibits smoking in virtually all indoor workplaces, Spectacle Jack and Hard Rock International announce an outdoor patio that has a track record for success at other locations.

• Sept. 25, 2020: Longtime Indiana gaming industry executive Rod Ratcliff is no longer the chairman and CEO of Spectacle Entertainment and Spectacle Gary. The Indianapolis-based company announces the promotion of Jahnae Erpenbach to serve in both positions. The company says Ratcliff actually stepped down from leadership in June.

• Sept. 29, 2020: U.S. prosecutors announce a federal grand jury the Southern District of Indiana returned an indictment charging a former Indiana state senator and John S. Keeler, 71, of Indianapolis, with one count of conspiracy to make illegal corporate contributions, false statements and to obstruct justice, one count of making illegal corporate contributions, one count of obstruction of justice, and one count of making false statements related to a scheme to make corporate contributions to Waltz’s 2016 congressional campaign in violation of campaign finance law..

The government argues that Keeler, vice president and general counsel of was then called New Centaur LLC arranged with Kelley Rogers, a Maryland-based political consultant, to cause New Centaur LLC to transfer thousands of dollars from its accounts to Rogers, who allegedly then funneled the money into Waltz’s campaign. Keeler is scheduled for a jury trial in April 2022 in federal court in the Southern District of Indiana.

• Nov. 24, 2020: IGC members members say they want a report within the next month for them to decide what action to take; Chairman Michael McMains says commission members need to have a “zero tolerance policy of illegal gaming activities.”

The IGC has forced Keeler and fellow Spectacle executive Rod Ratcliff to give up their ownership stakes in the Terre Haute casino.

• Feb. 2, 2021: Lucy Luck Gaming LLC is the new name of a holding company for a Terre Haute casino. The change occurred Dec. 21, according to information from the Indiana Gaming Commission. The name change from Spectacle Jack was made to clearly show Terre Haute’s $125 million casino project is a completely separate entity and not linked with Spectacle Entertainment’s large casino project in Gary.

• May 18, 2021: Hard Rock International and Lucy Luck Gaming have reached a management agreement for a new Terre Haute Rocksino, a step the Indiana Gaming Commission sought prior to considering the casino’s license renewal. Gibson says he is working with the IGC on approval of a finance plan.

Lucy Luck denied renewal

• June 24, 2021: The Indiana Gaming Commission issues an order declaring Lucy Luck ineligible for renewal of its casino owner’s license. The commission says no executive team has been established and says Lucy Luck’s financing is incomplete.

Gibson, chairman of Lucy Luck Gaming, prior to its denial told the commission that he had a commitment from five Indiana banks and Lucy Luck Gaming would get the funding once a gaming (renewal) license is granted.

• July 12, 2021: Lucy Luck files with a petition with commission and the Indiana Office of Administrative Law Proceedings for stay of Order No. 2021-114, the commission’s order denying Lucy Luck’s license renewal. It’s lawyer says a stay of that order “is the only way to avoid the potential procedural and practical nightmare that would result should a new license-application process move forward before a final determination is reached on Lucy Luck’s application to renew that very same license.”

An administrative judge later stays the order of the Indiana Gaming Commission, pending a hearing.

• Aug. 20, 2012: The state’s top gambling regulator is stepping down. Indiana Gaming Commission Executive Director Sara Gonso Tait is resigning after 10 years with the agency, six of those at the helm. Her last day will be Sept. 10. Greg Small will replace Gonso Tait as executive director. Small has served as the general counsel for the Indiana Gaming Commission since August 2015.

• Sept. 22, 2021: Four proposals are submitted for Vigo casino license. Those competing to develop the state’s 13th casino are Churchill Downs Incorporated, Full House Resorts, Hard Rock International, and Terre Haute Entertainment – a partnership that includes Premier Gaming Group.

• Nov. 15, 2021: The IGC holds a special virtual meeting to review a proposed settlement from Greg Gibson’s company and rejects the offer by a 4-0 vote. One member abstained who was not on the board in June when the commission voted not to renew the Lucy Luck license.

New licensee chosen, lawsuit filed

• Nov. 17, 2021: By a 7-0 vote, the IGC decides the Vigo County casino license will go to Churchill Downs to build and operate the Queen of Terre Haute Resort and Casino. A moment earlier, a motion to award the license to Full House Resorts has failed on a 5-2 vote.

• Dec. 17, 2021: Full House Resorts is suing the Indiana Gaming Commission, arguing the commission’s Nov. 17 decision to award the available Vigo County casino license to Churchill Downs should be nullified.

The complaint filed in Marion County Superior Court 2 in Indianapolis argues the hearing contravened Indiana’s Open Door Law because the Gaming Commission adjourned into an executive session to discuss the proposals in the middle of the hearing. The lawsuit also argues Churchill’s raising the possibility of an alternate site violates the licensing rules.

Full House Resorts seeks a stay of the Commission’s decision.

• Dec. 21, 2021: The IGC approves settlement agreement with Lucy Luck to refund a $5 million license fee.

• Dec. 21, 2021: The IGC awards the Vigo County casino license to Churchill Downs, pending receipt of a $5 million license fee. The license will not go into effect until an administrative law judge dismisses the appeal filed by Lucy Luck. Additionally, issuance of the license could be delayed by Full House Resort’s request for a stay as part of its lawsuit.

Small, executive director for the Gaming Commission, calls the Full House claims “meritless” and says the IGC will respond accordingly.

McMains, IGC chair, says, “I think it [the lawsuit] is vindictive, malicious and I think it is frivolous. ... I am embarrassed for Full House for having done this. Did you really think the Indiana Gaming Commission is going to change their mind because you file a complaint? I rather doubt that is going to happen.”
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.