Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003 | 11:35 a.m.
FRENCH LICK, Ind. -- Proponents of a casino for economically depressed Orange County won a swift victory Tuesday, passing a referendum after a decade-long campaign to win gambling rights.
Casino supporters voted nearly 2-to-1 in favor of the referendum.
Passage of the referendum clears the way for a casino to be built between two historic hotels in French Lick and West Baden Springs -- something many believe is the area's only chance for economic revival and reduced unemployment.
Casino backers, many of whom spent a decade seeking gambling rights in the General Assembly, had long predicted the countywide referendum would pass.
But they pressed ahead with a small army of volunteers who monitored polling places at each of the county's 22 precincts, ran phone banks from a picture studio in downtown Paoli and drove supporters without rides to the polls.
"You don't spend 12 years working for something and leave it to chance on the last lap," said Barry Wininger, a member of the French Lick Town Council and part of Tuesday's get-out-the-vote effort.
Many opponents predicted that a casino would lead to more social ills, including increased crime, bankruptcies and domestic problems.
Robert Hoyt, leader of the Orange County Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, was monitoring election returns at the county courthouse but walked out before 8 p.m., conceding defeat.
Hoyt blamed the loss on misinformation and the "massive amounts of money" prospective casino operators spent on the campaign.
"We did the best we could," Hoyt said. "I think we gave them much more of a fight than they thought was possible."
It could be several months before a casino operator is chosen and construction on a casino begins. Officials must pass local ordinances to support the venture. The Indiana Gaming Commission will make the final decision on awarding a casino contract.
Casino opponents clearly went into Tuesday's election with more political and financial clout.
Most elected officials favored a casino, including Sheriff Doyle Cornwell and state Rep. Jerry Denbo, a Democrat from French Lick who helped win the casino legislation in the General Assembly.
Advocates raised more than $100,000 to promote the venture, receiving $20,000 each from the five companies or groups vying to run the casino. Larry Bird, the basketball legend and hometown hero who owns a house in French Lick, is among investors in one of the groups.
Hoyt said he and other opponents were probably outspent 20 to one.
"It's no longer David vs. Goliath, it's become Bambi versus Godzilla," he said.
The fight over the referendum has been bitter for weeks, with both sides accusing the other of personal attacks and negative tactics.
While some said the hard feelings would linger, Marilyn Wilson of French Lick, a casino proponent, said most wounds would heal quickly.
"Most everyone around here knows each other and many were raised together," she said. "We'll come together."