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Lawrenceburg rebuilds: gaming revenues bring improvements to downtown.

FOUR MILLION VISITORS a year take their chances at Lawrenceburg's Argosy Casino. Another 250,000, equally daring, ski the nearby Perfect North Slopes.

The dollars they spend---and the millions in direct annual payments from Argosy Casino--are rebuilding the community nicknamed Whiskey City during the years it housed multiple distilleries. With a new Argosy Casino set to open in mid-2009 that will nearly double its gaming space, the city's moniker may become Playground Capital of Indiana.

A new Argosy. The new $310 million moored riverboat is under construction, with two 507-foot hulls now being joined in a newly created harbor on the Ohio River, 25 miles downstream from Cincinnati. It will have 4,200 gaming positions on one floor, replacing the 2,500 spaces on three floors in today's 11-year-old casino.

"We'll have 125,000 square feet--the size of a Wal-Mart--and a much larger poker room with space for 30 tables during tournaments," says Larry Kinser, Argosy general manager and vice president. Today's river boat decor will be replaced by an around-the-world theme so guests "can visit lots and lots of destinations." The casino itself will be decorated in a seaside theme.

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Argosy will be adding 200 workers to today's staff of 1,992.

Even before the new facility opens, visitor numbers could jump with this spring's opening of a 1,500-space parking garage and 300-foot moving walkway to the pavilion.

"We think a new product in the market will be good for us short- and long-term," Kinser says. And it's likely to be good for Lawrenceburg, too.

Lawrenceburg benefits. So far, Argosy's annual cash thank-yous to Lawrenceburg since the casino opened in 1996 have funded at least 25 major community projects, from new streets to sidewalks, sewer lines, a fire station, electric substations, parks, a medical center, a college building and spruce-ups all around downtown.

"This place is jumping," city manager Tom Steidel says of the town that covers just five square miles. "When I came here five years ago, there was virtually no one downtown. Now, downtown is about halfway where we want to be. You don't desert a village like this overnight, and you don't repopulate it over night. We still have some empty storefronts to fill."

Thanks to Argosy's millions, downtown improvements for the Dearborn County seat include a $23 million, three-story Ivy Tech branch opened in 2007 that serves about 650 students; an adjacent 800-car parking garage; and on the other side of it, the three-story Partners in Health medical complex, a public/private venture.

The city also built a new fire station, brought the police station back downtown in a restored building, moved itself back downtown and bought and sold several buildings for redevelopment.

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It's also used Argosy money to repave 68,500 feet of streets, install more than 75,400 feet of new sidewalks, build a tunnel under U.S. 50 to the school campus, add 35 new water mains, replace downtown storm sewers and build six new lift stations.

Other investments include a Levee walk, swimming pool and improvements to the Lawrenceburg Fairgrounds.

"When gaming came in 1996, downtown was in pretty serious straits," says John Roberts, Lawrence Main Street Association director. Since then, "Downtown has been incrementally moving forward, one step at a time."

Last year, 18 new businesses came to the downtown area and eight others expanded, he says. "We now have cafes and a wireless coffee shop." In 1998, downtown's vacancy rate was a whopping and grim 45 percent. "Now, it is down to about 17 percent," Roberts reports.

Next up is a focus on downtown housing for the city of 4,700 residents, Steidel reports. "Housing is the key to us moving forward," he says. And he hopes the town will draw new residents, perhaps even from Cincinnati. Already, 13 row houses are under way downtown, which will soon be turned over to a private developer to finish. Also planned are two 20-unit projects, one for seniors, also downtown, or, as Steidel likes to say, the village.

"We went through this fix-everything-up stage, which we've pretty much done," Steidel says. "And we spent some time and energy helping our neighbors."

Lawrenceburg has picked up some $150 million in gaming allocations since Argosy opened, which it partially shares with the county and other community groups. The city also has a separate agreement for another sizable chunk of change each year. Last year, it totaled $30.5 million.

"It's not an important number to us," says Seidel, who hasn't tallied Argosy's total payouts to Lawrenceburg over the years. "We don't have that kind of a booking system, and we split the money with numerous agencies."

There's enough in the bank, however, for the city to build a $25 million bridge on U.S. 50 over Tanners Creek, which will help alleviate traffic congestion.

Perfect Slopes upgrades. For those looking for more physical activity than pulling a slot lever or tossing the dice, Perfect North Slopes Ski Area offers 100 acres of skiing during a season that typically runs about 100 days. About a quarter of a million visitors hit the hillsides each year on what was once part of the Perfect family's 400-acre grain and cattle farm.

"The crowds have been good this season, and we posted the third-best December in our 28-year history, in spite of the so-so weather," says Ellen Perfect, marketing director. In ski lingo, that means December was too warm.

Improvements have been an every-year event since Perfect North opened in 1980. This season, upgrades included regrading the Hoyt Connection run, installing a new underground water supply, building a new office for the Snow Tubing Park, enlarging restrooms, and widening and reshaping access to several runs.

The business has been a Dearborn County Small Business of the Year winner, and it's also received an award from the National Ski Area Association for contributions to the skiing industry.

"Whiskey City." As for its old nickname, Whiskey City, Lawrenceburg is still home to one distillery, operating since 1847 and acquired by Seagram Co. in 1993. It was sold in 2001 to Pernod Ricard and Diageo, then last year to CL Financial Group of Trinidad and Tobago. When CL acquired it, employment was 450; it's since been trimmed to about 150, says Steidel at the city.

"We have high hopes it will ramp back up," he says. "There's plenty of corn here and plenty of good, free water--everything they need."
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Title Annotation:REGIONAL REPORT: SOUTHEAST
Author:Mayer, Kathy
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2008
Words:1074
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