Developer wants to put casino, upscale retail area near Indianapolis International Airport

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

By Jeff Swiatek, IndyStar

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (August 10, 2015)– The owner of the Rising Sun Casino Resort has a deal for the Indiana legislature and Indianapolis city officials, according to our media partners at IndyStar:

Support the move of half of Rising Sun’s 1,400 approved gaming tables to Marion County and it will build a $650 million upscale retail center anchored by a casino on a surplus parking lot near the old Indianapolis International Airport terminal.

Artist rendering of the proposed development.

Artist rendering of the proposed development.

The proposal by Full House Resorts, a Las Vegas-based casino operator, is the first serious attempt to bring gambling to Indiana’s capital city in several years. The last serious proposals for an Indianapolis casino came about a decade ago under then-Mayor Bart Peterson and about two decades ago for a casino and racetrack at the State Fairgrounds.

Full House publicly aired its idea Monday, the deadline for submitting development proposals for the site of the razed airport terminal and nearby parking lots that are no longer needed by the Indianapolis Airport Authority.

The move of any of Rising Sun’s gaming tables to another county would require approval by the Indiana legislature, the company said.

That could be a hard sell. Legislators have been loath in the past to expand casino gambling to Indianapolis, the state’s largest city. Two horsetracks with live betting and in-house casinos already exist near Indianapolis, in Anderson and Shelbyville, and their owner isn’t likely to support the idea of allowing new competition.

“It is ludicrous to believe the legislature would permit the holder of a gaming license to ‘divide up’ its license and operate from different locations, when a proposal to move one of the Gary riverboats was specifically rejected by the legislative study committee just last summer,” Centaur Gaming said in a statement in response to the proposal.

State Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, whose district includes the airport, said he finds it hard to believe the General Assembly would be willing to accept Full House’s deal. This year, the casinos in Shelbyville and Anderson lobbied for adding live dealers at their gaming tables and lawmakers wouldn’t allow even that modest change to happen until 2021.

“I think they have problems before it even gets started,” Behning said of the airport casino proposal.

Full House, a publicly traded company that recently got new management after its board was restructured in a proxy fight, said it’s barely breaking even at the Rising Sun Casino Resort. A downtown Cincinnati casino and two racinos opened in Ohio in 2013 and have cut into its business.

Revenues at the casino and resort on the Indiana side of the Ohio River have plunged by 75 percent, to $40 million a year, since the Ohio competition opened its doors, said Dan Lee, CEO of Full House.

“It’s barely profitable now,” Lee said. “It’s gonna kill us,” he said of the Ohio competition.

He said his company’s proposal is a way to save the Rising Sun casino and introduce casino gambling to Indianapolis by opening what would be the state’s smallest casino near the airport. He said the lifestyle center/casino proposal, which also would include a theater, office space and 200 condominiums, would generate $85 million a year in new state and local tax revenues when fully open. It also would create 4,000 permanent jobs, he said.

Full House is not asking for any economic incentives from the state or city.

Lee is a longtime casino developer who has helped build 10 casinos around the country, including the $1 billion Bellagio in Las Vegas in the 1990s. He was working then as chief financial officer for casino developer Steve Wynn. Later, Lee became CEO of Pinnacle Entertainment, another casino developer.

He called the airport land along I-465 and the Sam Jones Expressway “an amazing piece of land” with nearly one mile of valuable frontage along I-465.

Full House is calling its proposed development American Place. It would sit on 135 acres that were primarily used for parking for the old airport terminal and take three to five years to build. Its proposal doesn’t include using the land under the old terminal.

The huge former lot is too far away from the newly built terminal to be used for parking now, so the airport authority has offered it up for private development.

Authority spokesman Jeff Hutton said the airport wasn’t ready to say late Monday how many proposals it received to redevelop the terminal site and parking lot.

The authority hopes to pick one or more winning projects and negotiate a master development contract with the chosen companies to redevelop the surplus land, he said.

Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, an advocate of casino deregulation, said he doubts legislators would be willing to make an exception to the state’s gaming laws to let an operator move part of their gaming tables to another county.

“It wouldn’t just be the guys in Rising Sun that would like to cut that deal. It would be a race for all the other licensees to do that, too,” he said. “I think there would be a concern: Why Rising Sun?”

Huston’s proposal earlier this year to remove restrictions on where casinos can be built and how many may be licensed failed to even get a hearing in the legislature.

Gov. Mike Pence repeatedly has said he opposes the expansion of gambling in Indiana, but whether Full House’s proposal would qualify as expansion is unclear.

Lee said his company hopes to get approval for its idea in either the 2016 or 2017 sessions of the legislature.

He also said American Place is not financially feasible without the casino, which would generate much of the traffic to draw retailers and the revenue to pay for common features such as an ornate fountain and a plaza that would hold an ice skating rink.

The election next year of a new Indianapolis mayor also could have a bearing on Full House’s proposal because the mayor names a majority of members to the airport authority.

Full House’s airport casino proposal

Plan by Las Vegas casino operator Full House Resorts to develop a $650 million casino-anchored mixed-use project on former long-term parking lot near the old Indianapolis International Airport terminal would include these elements:

  • Casino. Would hold about 700 gaming tables and be geared to high-end players. Cost: $150 million.
  • Boutique hotel with 25 suites of 1,500 square feet or larger, catering to gamblers.
  • Lifestyle center with upscale stores and 700,000 square feet of retail space.
  • 200 condominium units.
  • A central square with a fountain that used 3-D imaging and a plaza that would contain an ice-skating rink and Christmas market in the winter, and landscaped gardens in the summer.
  • A multiplex movie theater.
  • An upscale health club that would cost $50 millon.
  • A tram on rails that would move people from one end of the site to the other.

This story originally appeared on IndyStar.com.