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What are the odds?

What Are the Odds?

Casino gambling may not have gotten legislative approval to build the tourism-revenue pot in Orange County, but there's some high-stakes gaming going on there, anyway.

The action involves commercial development of Tillery Hill, an 1,800-acre peninsula at Patoka Lake, which straddles Orange, Crawford and DuBois counties. A group called Patoka Partners proposes to lay down $75 million to construct a 200-room hotel, cabins, an amphitheater, two golf courses, two beaches, a 300-slip marina, fishing piers, a theme park and a wild-animal park. Backing the developers with moral support, if not money, are many of the tourist operators, business owners, chambers of commerce and jobless workers in the six counties surrounding the lake.

Right now, the odds would seem to be against the project, if comments received by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding its draft environmental impact statement are of any handicapping validity. Assimilating the "very, very large response" from public hearings and written comments - 60 percent against and 40 percent in favor-may delay issuance of the final impact statement report due this month.

The corps created the 8,800-acre reservoir - second largest in Indiana next to Lake Monroe - for flood control, recreation and natural resources management. The corps leases the 26,000-acre site, which opened in 1980, to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Some 750,000 people visited Patoka Lake last year, drawn to the state's largest campground, marinas, cabins, boat ramps, beaches, visitors center, bike paths, hiking trails, archery range, model airplane field, exercise trail, even a Frisbee golf course. The lake is stocked with bass, bluegill, red ear, crappie, northern pike and tiger muskies. The 17,000 acres surrounding the lake abound with habitat for wildlife - deer, coyote, fox, squirrel, quail, grouse, dove, osprey, loon, swan, crane and bald eagle.

When the corps delivers its final impact statement report, it will allow at least 30 days for challenges to its data or findings, which will be considered but not answered. Then a recommendation will be made, essentially a choice among three alternatives:

* The plan for extensive commercial development of Tillery Hill;

* A scaled-down version contained in the corps' original master plan calling for a lodge, cabins, one golf course and a small marina at Tillery Hill; or

* Leaving Tillery Hill undeveloped.

That last alternative is what the environmentalists would prefer. "Keep it wild, that is essentially our position," says Tim Maloney, forest project coordinator for the Indianapolis-based Hoosier Environmental Council. He called the development of Tillery Hill "inappropriate" because of the state's short supply of public lands and diminishing habitat for wildlife.

Supporters of the Patoka Partners proposal for Tillery Hill cite the business development and jobs it would bring. To the observation of an opponent that the jobs would be largely low paying, a proponent, Alan Barnett, executive secretary of the French Lick Chamber of Commerce, responded: "When your unemployment rate is 14 percent as it is in Orange County, or 12 percent in Crawford County, any jobs will do."

Once the corps makes its recommendation, the matter doesn't end, but falls to the DNR. It has authority to sublease Tillery Hill and thus decide its fate - a cause of some nervousness. The DNR has moved from being the primary advocate of the Patoka Partners plan, under an earlier, different state administration and leadership, to taking a neutral or no-position position.

Of concern is the size of the investment required in recessionary times. Patoka Partners cannot put its $75 million financing package together until a go-ahead is given, at least by the corps of engineers. Even if approved, the DNR must face the prospect of getting stuck, if the project should fall short or fall apart, at a time when the state budget is strapped. The DNR has had to take over or nurse along shaky projects in the past.

A look at the promotional catalog put out by the six-county Lincoln Hills-Patoka Lake Tourism Association raises the question: Why are more tourist attractions needed? Besides the facilities at Patoka Lake, there's French Lick Springs Resort, Holiday World at Santa Claus, the Lincoln Boyhood Memorial, farm and outdoor drama at Lincoln City and the Lincoln Village at Rockport, Squire Boone Caverns near Corydon, Marengo Cave, Wyandotte Caves at Leavenworth, Paoli Peaks ski slopes, the Capitol Historic Site at Corydon, an exotic animal zoo at English, the Indiana Railway Museum and train trip at French Lick, St. Meinrad Seminary and the lakes and campgrounds of the Hoosier National Forest.

Why bring in a competing hotel when the once-grand hostelry at West Baden Springs now stands empty and in disrepair, when there are still vacancies at the 485-room French Lick Springs, when Indianapolis has built big hotels and seized much of the convention business?

The answer, voiced with remarkable unanimity by those in the tourist business, is the "magnet theory." A big, widely publicized attraction - a theme park like Walt Disney World - pulls a lot of people to the "destination park." On the way, once there, and returning home, they visit other tourist attractions, fill up nearby motels, rent cabins, eat at different restaurants, buy souvenirs. "Business builds upon business," says the French Lick chamber's Barnett.

Tourism is regarded as an important part of the economy of Southern Indiana counties because they have no dominant industry. But the seasonal nature of tourism tends to diminish its contribution.

A casino gambling bill that died in an Indiana Senate committee this spring would have paved the way for casino operations in Orange County's resort areas of French Lick and West Baden Springs. The measure passed the Indiana House of Representatives before stalling on the Senate side. Had it been approved and signed by the governor, casino gambling still would have needed local approval in Orange County before the blackjack tables and slot machines could have moved in.

What if the Tillery Hill development by Patoka Partners doesn't go through? The answer depends upon whom you ask. Its strong advocates foresee impeded growth and continued high unemployment, although some in the tourist trade say they will keep on growing gradually. Opponents of the project don't think much about economic consequences.

And there are some who still think casino gambling might be a good idea.

PHOTO : The Tillery Hill Project at Patoka Lake may have as small a chance as the return of casinos to French Lick.

PHOTO : A group called Patoka Partners proposes to lay down $75 million for the extensive theme park development.
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Title Annotation:Focus: Regional Report South; commercial development at Patoka Lake to boost tourism at Orange County
Author:Spaid, Ora
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Words:1081
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