After decades of talk, work on a casino in Terre Haute has begun.

Shovels were turned Tuesday in a groundbreaking ceremony on the city's east side for the Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort, which will take 18 months to build.

Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort breaks ground

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaThe ground is broken: This is state Sen. Jon Ford's commemorative shovel after the groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday at the site of the new Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort. Ford, a Terre Haute Republican, led the legislative effort to allow a casino license in Vigo County.

Workers have begun drainage and other site preparation on 50 acres of land at 4442 East Margaret Drive for the new casino by Churchill Downs Inc.

The company will invest $260 million into the facility, which will feature 1,000 slot machines, 50 table games, a 125-room luxury 10-story hotel with a roof top pool/bar/lounge, a sportsbook and five restaurants and bars.

"The Queen of Terre Haute is intended to reflect this community, the values, the enthusiasm, and the people that live here," said Louisville, Kentucky, based Churchill Downs CEO William C. Carstanjen.

"We are very focused as a company on economic development, health and wellness, tourism, infrastructure and quality of life as well as talent, attracting the best people that we can," Carstanjen said. "We realize that you have entrusted us with being a member of your community and with this project."

Carstanjen said the company will "prioritize the residents, the vendors, the suppliers of the west central region. We will be looking for employees, team members as we call them, contractors and we will be focused on finding the people to do as much of the work as we possibly can from this area and this community."

The casino, which is slated to open in late 2023, will have 500 jobs with a mix of full-time and part-time employees. It is expected to generate 1,000 construction jobs.

Hiring for the casino will start by year's end, said Mike Rich, who will be general manager of the casino. Rich, a native of the Chicago area, graduated from Indiana University's Kelly School of Business in 1995. He has served in several casinos, including two in Indiana.

The casino has cleared issues with the Federal Aviation Administration by slightly moving the 10-story hotel on its site design as not to impact any approaches or departures from Terre Haute Regional Airport-Hulman Field, Rich said.

Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort breaks ground

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaA new era begins: Churchill Downs Inc. CEO William Carstanjen, center in white shirt, breaks ground with fellow casino staff, elected officials and construction management on Tuesday at the site of the new Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort.

Once constructed, Rich said marketing the casino will compete strongly with other venues, such as 41,500-square foot Golden Nugget casino now under construction in Danville, Illinois.

"We feel that our offering will be more significant than in Danville, and I think this will be a regional draw. We think we will have something very unique to offer in terms of being a real regional resort," Rich said.

"We think we will be able to also pull from Indianapolis ... venues which don't have the resort amenities that we have as it relates to the niceness of the hotel, the pool concept, the number of restaurants on property that will be open at any given time. We really feel this is a real resort property."

Phil Kenney, president of F.A. Wilhelm Construction Co., which will build the casino, said Churchill Downs has set five priorities.

Those are worksite safety, using diverse businesses in construction, keeping the project on cost, keeping the project on schedule, and ensuring quality of work.

Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort breaks ground

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaTeamwork: Vigo County Commissioner Chris Switzer thanks the management team at Churchill Downs Inc. for working with Vigo County elected officials on Tuesday at the site of the Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort.

"They set expectations right up front," Kenney said of Churchill Downs. "Their expectation is that there are not accidents, incidents or property damage issues on the construction site. Churchill Downs is all in on diverse business participating in the project. Their expectation is that everybody gets a fair shot at participating," he said.

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said the groundbreaking "is another example of an event of something that we wanted in this community, that we went out and got, like the convention center and the walkway from West Terre Haute.

"The first hurdle was communicating to the [Indiana] General Assembly what the community wanted, and that we were ready for an opportunity like this," Ford said prior to the groundbreaking. "It was important for me that we had a referendum ... so that people could have their say," Ford said.

The idea of a casino in Terre Haute or Vigo County had been floated over a nearly 40-year time frame, with riverboats or tribal casinos suggested. The Indiana General Assembly in 2019 approved a sweeping casino and sports-betting bill that allowed the possibility of a Terre Haute casino. Ford was one of the authors and leading voices in that effort.

"We changed the way we advocated. We brought people from Terre Haute to the statehouse. We brought statehouse people to Terre Haute. We weren't doing that six years ago," Ford said. "It was the effort that the community made is why we here," he said, prior to the start of a groundbreaking ceremony.

Vigo County voters in November 2019 approved a casino in the county. Sixty-three percent of those casting ballots voted in favor.

During the ceremony Tuesday, Ford thanked RJL Solutions and Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson "who really worked hard at the statehouse and locally to make this opportunity happen."

A Gibson company won the first license for a Terre Haute casino. However, in June, 2021, the Indiana Gaming Commission declared Lucy Luck Gaming Inc. ineligible for license renewal, saying the company did not have an established executive team and that financing was incomplete.

Churchill Downs then was awarded the license, besting three other competitors in a process that culminated in November 2021.

Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort breaks ground

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaHere's to the future: Mayor Duke Bennett shakes hands with Churchill Downs Inc. CEO William Carstanjen after they and others broke ground on Tuesday at the site of the new Queen of Terre Haute Casino Resort. In the background is state Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute.

Ford noted that efforts such as the convention center and casino as well as improvements at Indiana State University, are bring attention to Terre Haute.

"I think other folks in the state are taking notice that Terre Haute is open is for business and we want development," Ford said during the ceremony.

Chris Switzer, president of the Vigo County Board of Commissioners, said the casino "will change the landscape of Vigo County for the better. We thank the state government for giving us a voice" to obtain the casino license.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett also thanked Gibson and others for bringing the casino.

"It is real now. It is actually going to happen," Bennett said during the groundbreaking event.

"It has been a long time coming, and sometimes I wonder how we pulled it off," the mayor said. "There is no question about the Chamber's effort to rally the troops here, and RJL Solutions work in the hallways of the legislature," the mayor said.

"When we get these successes, more will follow," the mayor said. "This is another exciting piece of the puzzle."

Bennett said the casino will bring a $190 million annual impact to the city and county's economy, with the city, county, school corporation and a non-profit foundation sharing in about $10 million annually.

"We can now look at quality of life things. We don't need any of the revenue from the casino to help with the [city] budget. We can take all that money and invest back into the community," Bennett said. "It can be spent on roads, parks and amenities, so it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to be able to talk about something like this."

The mayor said in addition to casino revenue, local government will benefit from property taxes, local income taxes from employees and food-and-beverage tax, "all of which goes to furthering investment in the community."

"Looking back, in some ways it is a miracle. The community support is what sold it. It was a major legislative accomplishment," Bennett said.

In addition to racing and sports betting throughout Kentucky, Churchill Downs will have 15 casinos once the closing on a $2.48 billion deal is approved that will add eight properties.

In that deal, Churchill Downs Inc. is to acquire Peninsula Pacific Entertainment LLC, with assets in Virginia and New York as well as the operations of its Sioux City, Iowa, property. The transaction, pending regulatory review, is expected to close by the end of this year.

Other new casinos include Terre Haute and Derby City Gaming Downtown in Louisville, Ky. Other casinos for Churchill Downs are located in Miami Gardens, Fla.; New Orleans, La., Greenville, Miss; Farmington, Pa.; Lebanon, Ohio; Berlin, Md.; Oxford, Maine; Erie, Pa.; Des Plaines, Ill.; Vicksburg, Miss.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com. Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

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