Monday, Sept. 26, 2005 | 9:52 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Majestic Star Casino will not operate a casino in Orange County as planned, but the state's top gaming official said Friday that the news was not a blow to the project.
"The citizens of Orange County should rest assured that we do not view this as anything that will adversely affect operation or timing" of the project, said Ernest Yelton, executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission.
In June, the commission gave initial approval to a $250 million proposal from Blue Sky Casino, a partnership between Bloomington medical device maker Cook Group Inc. and real estate developer Lauth Property Group Inc. of Indianapolis, to run a casino and hotel venture in southern Indiana's Orange County.
Under the initial plan, that partnership signed on with Majestic Star -- which also has a casino in Gary -- to operate the planned casino in Orange County.
Vernon Back, general counsel for the Lauth Group, said that as the parties got farther into discussions, it was decided it would be better to have the partnership assemble its own team to operate the casino. He said that effort already had begun and a team should be set in the next 30 to 90 days.
Majestic Star issued a news release Friday saying it had been involved in the project since April and had made a significant contribution to the casino's design, among other things. It did not state a reason for the end of its involvement, only that it was confident Blue Sky would make the project a complete success.
Messages seeking comment were left with officials at Majestic Star.
Steve Ferguson, chairman of the Cook Group, said in the release that Majestic Star's assistance was appreciated.
"We are moving the project ahead at a rapid pace and when complete, French Lick Springs Resort and Casino will be the Midwest's premier resort destination."
Under the projected timeline, the casino is to be operational by December 2006. The Cook-Lauth partnership also plan to renovate 440 rooms at the French Lick Springs Resort and 240 rooms at the nearby West Baden Springs Resort by the end of 2007.
Indiana Gaming Insight, a weekly newsletter about the state's gaming industry, reported Thursday night that the split between Majestic Star and the partnership should be expected.
Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of the newsletter, said if there were no delays in the project, the break should not mean anything in the long run.
"The project is phased so that the gaming operation is effectively the last thing to come on line, so they have bigger fish to fry," Feigenbaum said. "The selection of a gaming operator is not as pressing as their construction schedule."
Back said the partnership would detail its plans for assembling a casino operating team when the Gaming Commission meets Monday.
Democratic state Rep. Jerry Denbo of French Lick, who spent a decade fighting for legislative authorization for an Orange County casino, said he had "total confidence" the project would proceed and succeed because it was being backed by the Cook Group and its owner, William Cook.
"With Majestic Star no longer in the picture, Bill Cook will have someone even better and we won't have anything to worry about," Denbo said.