How the Casino Scene Evolved in the State of Indiana

Indiana State Seal With a Riverboat Casino Background

The state of gambling in Indiana can trace its roots back to 1851, when the Indiana Constitution banned lotteries and all forms of gambling. And here we are in the latest decade of the 2020s, where Indiana is now one of the most liberal gambling states in the country.

So, what happened? And where does the State of Indiana go from here? What can you expect to see the state of Indiana do with the gambling industry, given the leniency in gambling laws since the state lifted the initial bans in 1988?

This article will answer your questions. So, if you’re in the state of Indiana or if you’re planning a trip to the area, this article looks at the history of Indiana’s gambling laws, the current laws, and what you can expect the state to bring into the gambling scene in the future.

Let’s discover how Indiana casinos got to this point and where the state is likely to be headed.

Before the Riverboat Era

Okay, so in 1851, the Indiana Constitution banned lotteries from occurring in the state. Local officials saw the ban on lotteries as a ban on gambling, and they put the idea to rest for the next 137 years and no, that is not a typo. The state did, in fact, go without gambling for 137 years.

In 1988, officials lifted the ban on playing the lottery, and Hoosiers could finally pave the way for future restrictions on gambling to be uplifted. The Hoosier Lottery grew from simple scratch-off tickets in 1989 to becoming a member of the Multi-State Lottery Association in 1990.

The next steps occurred in 1989 when the state legalized pari-mutuel betting. The first race course in the state, Hoosier Park, opened in Anderson, Indiana in 1994. The next year, in 1995, off-track betting parlors opened.

After the Riverboat Era began in Indiana, a second racetrack, Indiana Downs, opened in Shelbyville, Indiana.

The Fight for Casino Legalization

Even with the lottery and pari-mutuel betting becoming a thing in the state, many were still discontent with restrictions, so the fight to legalize casinos grew among the Hoosiers.

Initially, Indiana lawmakers stated despite the legalization of the lottery in the Hoosier State, that there would be little to no support for casino gaming. Hoosiers who criticized the lottery’s legalization thought otherwise, and they couldn’t have been more right.

1989 sought the first proposal to open a casino in the collapsing city of Gary, Indiana. Gary Mayor Thomas Barnes was the first to propose a new casino, but Indiana legislators put their foot down.

Indiana Riverboat Casino

However, a referendum was passed in Gary, where 60% of the city’s voters approved the building of future casinos. In fact, the economically-depressed city that was once a stronghold in the Midwest proposed as many as five new casinos in Gary to help revitalize that city’s economy.

In 1990, gaming companies from Nevada and Atlantic City caught wind of Gary’s proposal and joined in on the lobbying efforts to bring forth casinos to the city. The following year, Gary resident and Indiana State Representative Charlie Brown proposed riverboat casinos on the Ohio River.

Once again, the Indiana General Assembly rejected the bill. But this time, the bill passed in the House before falling in the Senate.

In 1992, Brown introduced another bill, but it again drew little support. However, another bill was introduced by Southern Indiana legislatures to legalize riverboat casinos on the Ohio River and on Lake Michigan. The latter drew further support from Gary lawmakers.

Although the bill passed in the House, the Senate once again rejected it. A similar bill, this time with backing from Republican entrepreneur Dean White, called for land-based casinos in Gary and French Lick, and riverboats throughout the rest of the state. But once again, the Senate blocked it.

They introduced another measure in a later session, but if you’ve been reading this article to this point, you can predict what happened next—another block.

However, the Assembly gathered for a special session in 1993. And after nearly a half-decade of trying, they approved for five riverboat casinos on Lake Michigan (two in Gary), five on the Ohio River, and one on Patoka Lake near French Lick.

The Riverboat Casino Era

The state required local referendums to approve of the future casinos heading into the state in every proposed area except for Gary. Voters in Hammond, East Chicago, Dearborn, Ohio, Switzerland, LaPorte, and Vanderburgh passed their referendums.

In 1994, three more counties passed referendums, which included Crawford, Harrison, and Perry Counties. City officials then examined the 50 applications to host the future riverboats, including 25 in Gary, six in Evansville, and eight in Lawrenceburg.

In December 1994, the Indiana Gaming Commission granted its first licenses. One of which went to Donald Trump at the proposed Gary location, while the second went to Don Barden and President Casinos in a joint venture.

The Commission then visited Evansville and awarded the license to Aztar Corp. They went Southeast in July 1995, awarding a license to a Hyatt project in Rising Sun before the Lawrenceburg location went to Argosy Gaming and Canseco.

Majestic Star Riverboat Casinos

Empress River Casino received the license in Hammond. Finally, on December 7th, 1995 Casino Aztar Evansville opened as the state’s first casino. Up in Gary, Trump Casino and Majestic Star opened before Empress Star commenced a few weeks afterward. Hyatt’s project, the Grand Victoria II, opened in October 1996, and the Lawrenceburg location christened as Argosy Casino opened in December of that year.

Michigan City’s Blue Chip Casino opened in August 1997, and the Commission approved a joint venture between Hollywood Park and Boomtown a year later in 1998. In November of that year, Caesars Indiana opened its doors.

And finally, in 2000, the Belterra casino opened after a brief delay after the vessel collided with a barge en route to its location.

The Move to Land and the End of an Era

When the Army Corps of Engineers reiterated to the state, it had regulations against gambling on Patoka Lake. Legislators scrambled for a replacement and settled on one in the area near French Lick and West Baden Springs.

The proposal called for the new casino to be built within the structure of an artificial lake, earning the future venue the nickname “Boat on the Moat.” However, the moat was filled and as a result, they converted the proposed riverboat into a land-based casino.

State legislation granted French Lick to become the first land-based casino via House Bill 1276 in 2010 and in 2015, amended the law to allow all riverboat casinos to become land-based because of personal preferences from customers preferring land-based casinos over riverboats.

They also intended the law to assist land-based casinos to become more competitive with those in neighboring states, especially those located near Cincinnati, Ohio, Kentucky, and the State of Michigan.

Tropicana Evansville (the Vanderburgh location) was the first to take advantage of the new law, and the second overall to become land-based in the state after the exception was made to French Lick earlier in the decade.

Future Outlook on Gambling in Indiana

As you can see from the article, Indiana has become increasingly liberal with its gambling laws since they introduced the first lotteries in 1988. With that said, we can conclude that you will probably see a transition phase from the riverboats to land-based facilities throughout the 2020s.

If the state’s few land-based casinos boast better returns than their riverboat counterparts, expect an exodus to land and the riverboats to be permanently docked and never to be heard from again.

You should also expect further casinos to spring up if the land-based casinos continue to help the state’s economy. But we shouldn’t forget about Gary, the city that started it all because of its economic collapse during the latter portion of the 20th century.

Riverboat Casino Interior

If the two casinos in Gary, which are now the Majestic Star and Majestic Star II (formerly Trump Casino) move inland and help revitalize the city’s economy, you shouldn’t just expect Indiana to take advantage, so will other states throughout the Rust Belt that haven’t yet done the same.

Expect a fast transition if the state of Indiana’s land-based casinos start rocking and rolling. If they compete well with casinos in neighboring states, especially those in the same region, then look for Indiana’s casino scene to move to land within the next five years.

If not, then you’ll see the riverboats continue to dominate the scene. But if land-based casinos are in as high demand as patrons show, you’ll eventually see the state go land-based permanently.

Conclusion

Indiana is in a unique mold, given most of its casinos remain as riverboats for the time being. However, given the demands for lotteries and casinos during each era in history, state legislatures eventually caved.

In 2015, they dropped the big one when they legalized land-based casinos in the state for economic interests and to enhance competition among its state’s casinos and those of its neighbors. But one must think that it was also the preferred choice of the state’s people.

The land-based casinos will win out, and so long as it helps the state grow economically—especially in those financially-depressed areas—look for the boom period to start sooner rather than later.