BY DAVE TAYLOR

CNHI News Indiana

TERRE HAUE, Ind. — The prospect of a casino about 50 miles away in Danville, Illinois, may set up a race with Terre Haute.

But some in the industry and those who follow it say gambling expansion approved in Illinois may be so large it works to Vigo County's advantage.

The Illinois Senate on Sunday gave final passage to a bill allowing six new casinos — including in Danville, downtown Chicago and the south suburbs. It also allows slot machines and table games at horse racing tracks, expands the number of machines outside casinos and permits sports gambling.

The Indiana General Assembly adopted sweeping changes in the state's gaming laws during its recent session, including a new license for Terre Haute if Vigo County voters approve.

Danville is about 50 miles north of Terre Haute.

“The success of Terre Haute and Danville will somewhat depend on which is opened first,” Greg Gibson, vice chairman of Spectacle Entertainment and a Terre Haute developer, said Monday to the (Tere Haute) Tribune-Star. “It is certainly in the best interest of Vigo County and the state of Indiana to move this process along as quickly as possible.”

Spectacle Entertainment operates casinos in Gary and has expressed an interest in obtaining the Terre Haute gaming license and developing a casino here.

John Keeler, vice president and general counsel for Spectacle, said, “A casino in Danville might shrink the market some. Terre Haute is not as an attractive venue from an overall market perspective as it was, assuming a casino gets built in Danville. Notwithstanding that, Spectacle Entertainment intends to forge ahead and compete for the Terre Haute location.”

Gibson said, “I'm not knowledgeable enough to speculate how a facility in Danville would financially affect a casino in Terre Haute, but we, and others, will be working to try to figure that out.”

Since Illinois does not require voter approval of a casino in a referendum, it is now all the more important for Vigo County to put the issue to voters this fall and for state regulators to respond promptly if the measure passes, said Gibson, Keeler and Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett.

“If the referendum is approved, it will be imperative that the Indiana Gaming Commission act quickly to solicit casino operator proposals and then award the license as soon as possible,” Bennett said.

Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Gaming Insight that covers the gaming industry, said it works to Vigo County's favor that a casino approval process is already in place in Indiana.

“I think the Gaming Commission will certainly understand … and do whatever is needed to expedite the process,” he said.

By boosting the number of authorized Illinois casinos from 10 to 16 — 19 including horse tracks — the expansion “may potentially scare off competition,” Feigenbaum said. “I was very surprised they kept Danville in the final bill.”

Because so many other Illinois locations are now included, there may be less interest in Danville and Vigo County may see only one or two applicants, he said.

“Some of these dynamics may end up working in favor of Terre Haute,” he added.

David Haynes, president of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, said, “I believe Indiana has the better-managed gaming system and the recent Indiana legislation has been tailored to be in the best interest of west-central Indiana.”

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, who pushed for a Vigo County casino in the Indiana Legislature, said, “We have an inherent advantage. There's more traffic on I-70.”

He was speaking in reference to Interstate 74, which serves Danville.

Ford and Feigenbaum noted the expansion of video gaming terminals in Illinois — from five to six at individual restaurants, bars and fraternal organizations and from five to 10 at truck stops — will also further saturate the Illinois market.

“That makes the Indiana market more attractive to gaming investors. We don't have this saturation,” Feigenbaum said. “We have purposely designed our gaming environment. I think in Illinois it's the wild west.”

The Illinois legislation allows sports betting at casinos, sports tracks and sports facilities seating more than 17,000 people, including State Farm Center in Champaign.

But Feigenbaum gives the advantage in that area to Indiana, which will allow mobile betting. Bets in Illinois must be placed in person.

Which state — or city — ultimately ends up cashing in remains to be seen.

Illinois, Keeler said, “has been trying for 17 years (to expand gaming). "We knew this would happen eventually, but we were hoping for another two or three years. It just wasn't in the cards.”