MERRILLVILLE – Maybe, just maybe, this casino thing will work out for Gary when all is said and done.

Former state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, was the driving force that launched the casino industry in Indiana. She thought the casinos would do two things for Gary – make a drastic cut in unemployment and provide a huge revenue source for the city. Neither, unfortunately, happened.

With the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond and the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago capturing the bulk of the traffic from Chicago, the Majestic Star Casino in Gary has remained at the bottom of the revenue stream. Initially, both the Majestic Star and Trump casinos were in Gary. When Trump bailed out, the two casinos both came under the Majestic Star name.

A year after opening, I remember a Trump official saying they thought they could get enough Chicagoans south on Cline Avenue to make things work in Gary. It never happened.

But now, 22 years after the Gary casinos opened, there is hope.

Two firms have studied Gary’s potential and there is a plan to develop the Buffington Harbor area on Lake Michigan into a transportation, freight and logistics hub. State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, who replaced Rogers when she retired, is carrying the plan for the development in conjunction with state assistance. Melton said that with Lake Michigan, national rail lines, several interstate highways, the Gary/Chicago International Airport and the proximity to Chicago make Gary the ideal site for development.

But the casinos will have to find a new home. And this brings us back to the beginning.

Initially, Gary wanted its casino to be built along Interstate 94, the state’s busiest highway, to benefit from the heavy traffic. But when it was decided that the casinos had to be on water, thoughts about I-94 traffic vanished, even though some held out hope for putting a casino in a small pond at the intersection of I-94 and I-65.

Now, Melton sees the development at Buffington Harbor and moving the casino to the highway as a double boost for Gary’s staggering economy.  Melton acknowledges that moving the casino to the interstate would draw opposition from Hammond and East Chicago. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. likely would lead that opposition, just as he has in the past for projects that he thought would help Gary and hurt his city.

The Indiana legislature approved casinos, both in northwest Indiana and along the Ohio River, because they would be viewed as riverboat casinos and not carry the stigma of land-based casinos. But, much has changed since legalized gambling came to Indiana. Land-based casinos operated by Native American tribes have opened in New Buffalo, Mich., not far from the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, as well as in South Bend.

And, the threat grows stronger each year that land-based casinos will be approved for suburbs surrounding Chicago, including near the Indiana state line. 

Rich James has been writing about politics and government for 40 years. He is retired from the Post-Tribune, a newspaper born in Gary.