Portage of­fi­cials eye bid for casino li­cense

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Michael Gon­za­lez Post-Tri­bune

Some Portage of­fi­cials are ready to roll the dice on get­ting a casino li­cense for the city, bet­ting that a large piece of prop­erty on the city’s north side can be­come a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment.

The talk of a new casino in Portage be­gan af­ter Gary re­cently an­nounced its will­ing­ness to for- feit one of its two Ma­jes­tic Star river­boat li­censes in fa­vor of mov­ing a casino off the wa­ter and into the city, if the city gets the state’s per­mis­sion to do so.

The re­birth of a push for a Portage casino idea be­gan 25 years af­ter Porter County vot­ers shot down a ref­er­en­dum that would have al­lowed such a de­vel­op­ment in the lake­side city. Back then, the three Lake County cities that won the casino sweep­stakes — Gary, Ham­mond and East Chicago — did so with votes in their in­di­vid­ual cities.

Portage vot­ers, who sup­ported the casino, had to get the bless­ing of the en­tirety of Porter County in a ref­er­en­dum. The ef­fort failed.

Ham­mond, home of the Horse­shoe Casino, the state’s largest gross­ing casino, al­ready has ex­pressed in­ter­est in get­ting Gary’s sec­ond li­cense.

Portage of­fi­cials said a mas­sive par­cel that once was ear­marked for a sports re­sort would be an ideal spot for a casino de­vel­op­ment. The re­sort plan­ners are locked in le­gal battles over in­ter­nal dif­fer­ences, and, the city has said the plan­ners de­faulted on their pay­ments to Portage for the prop­erty.

“Ev­ery­body’s look­ing for reve- nue sources,” said Portage City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Mark Oprisko, D-at large, point­ing to Horse­shoe Casino in Ham­mond and the de­vel­op­ment it’s sparked in that city. “Look­ing at that empty (sports re­sort) field and look­ing at Ham­mond and try­ing to get that sec­ond li­cense, I keep think­ing, ‘Why can’t Portage get that?’

“I think you’ll have a big name from (Las) Ve­gas that would be more than willing to come to Portage.”

Oprisko pointed to avail­able land, nearby high­ways and a toll road and the grow­ing pos­si­bil­ity the North­ern In­di­ana Com­muter District will build a sec­ond South Shore main line to the north, giv­ing Portage more ac­cess to Chicago dol­lars.

Andy Maletta, Portage’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor, watched as his fa­ther, then-Mayor Sam­mie Maletta, fought to get a river­boat casino in Portage in 1993, only to see a coun­ty­wide ref­er­en­dum kill the idea.

Part of the county’s re­luc­tance was talk of a river­boat casino bring­ing in crim­i­nal el­e­ments, an out­dated be­lief, Andy Maletta said.

“It was a dif­fer­ent time, and there was a lot of ner­vous­ness about what a casino could do to a com­mu­nity, which was re­ally not fair to Portage,” he said. “We prob­a­bly should’ve waited for an­other elec­tion cy­cle to ask for (the casino).”

If Portage can get a casino li­cense, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment would boom in the city and re­gion­ally, es­pe­cially once the sports re­sort opened up the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ties at the va­cant and po­ten­tial casino site, in­clud­ing build­ing a re­gional con­ven­tion cen­ter on the va­cant land, Maletta said.

“There’s a need for a con­ven­tion cen­ter in North­west In­di­ana, so why not there?” he said. “There’s a lot of recre­ational de­vel­op­ment that can co­in­cide there.”

Mayor James Sny­der, who is fac­ing a fed­eral cor­rup­tion trial in Jan­uary, did not re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment, but two high­pro­file Portage of­fi­cials who have said they’ll run for mayor, Demo­cratic ClerkTrea­surer Chris Stid­ham and City Coun­cil­man John Can­non, R-4th, said they want more in­for­ma­tion and called for a cau­tious ap­proach to the casino idea.

“I’m not one to jump head­first into the casino idea,” Stid­ham said. “My con­cern is we don’t want to have a hodge­podge de­vel­op­ment. Let’s make sure the casino and what­ever de­vel­op­ment it brings with it fits into what we want as a com­mu­nity.”

Can­non said he’s against what he called “a knee-jerk re­ac­tion” to the idea. Can­non said he’s philo­soph­i­cally for a casino in Portage if it will cre­ate rev­enue and jobs, but he will throw his sup­port be­hind the idea if it’s well planned.

“There’s a lot of things to do prior to the (casino) dis­cus­sion,” Can­non said. “Where’s the (po­ten­tial) lo­ca­tion? What (prop­er­ties) do we have avail­able?”

Can­non also said he wants in­for­ma­tion on the rev­enue a casino might gen­er­ate and would it mean for in­creas­ing first re­spon­ders in the city to re­spond to any pos­si­ble needs at the site, as well as traf­fic pat­terns.

A spokes­woman for the In­di­ana Gam­ing Com­mis­sion on said the agency is a reg­u­la­tory com­mis­sion and sug­gested an avail­able li­cense would come at the will of the state leg­is­la­ture.

The idea is more likely to start in Gov. Eric Hol­comb’s of­fice, said State Rep. Chuck Mose­ley, D-Portage, adding that other com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing Fort Wayne, have ex­pressed in­ter­ested in get­ting a casino li­cense.

“It has to come out of the gov­er­nor’s of­fice a (gam­ing) li­cense is avail­able,” Mose­ley said. “The gov­er­nor could elim­i­nate (an avail­able li­cense) or look for best suit­able place in terms of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and rev­enue for those in­ter­ested com­mu­ni­ties”

One sig­nif­i­cant step would be to show the com­mu­nity — whether it’s the city of Portage or Porter County — is be­hind the idea, pos­si­bly by pass­ing a res­o­lu­tion that calls for get­ting a casino li­cense in the first place, Mose­ley said.

“I think if the city of Portage, or Porter County, or what­ever you want to iden­tify as a com­mu­nity on this is­sue, be­lieves this is in the best in­ter­est of the peo­ple who live here and pay taxes, some­body should put forth a res­o­lu­tion let­ting the gov­er­nor know this is some­thing they would be in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing.

“That res­o­lu­tion would let peo­ple down­state know they’re in­ter­ested.”

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