Lots of 2019 legislative discussion time – at least peripherally – was driven by the purported imperative to move the two Gary casino vessels and attendant physical facilities from their home since 1996 in Buffington Harbor to allow for a “transformational” transmodal project.

That effort was proposed to build on the potential synergy of a deep-water port there, the largely untapped potential of the nearby Gary-Chicago International Airport, freight railroad line traversing the property, and the ability to host truck terminals and warehouses on abundant brownfield property close to interstate highways.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson (D) brought key lawmakers to the site during the Summer of 2018, and top Senate leaders – particularly on the fiscal front – left impressed with the vision and committed to give Gary a hand up, as opposed to the proverbial handout. Sen. Eddie Melton (R) of Gary authored SB 66 as a companion to the gaming expansion bill to detail a working framework for the cleanup, transfer, and adaptive reuse of the property once the casinos floated away, as well as the overall project governance.

When Senate Republican leaders amended the bill to ensure more state control of the local project, it seemed to be an official indication that the project would come to fruition, and the bill looked like a lock as a trailer bill to the omnibus gaming legislation.

Sen. Melton fought detractors who said that the proposal was too ambitious to take root – and those who questioned whether it was a simply an excuse to move the casino vessels and start the dominoes – by insisting that this was not “pie in the sky,” and he and Gary city officials claimed that major unnamed developers were lined up to move dirt just as soon as Buffington Harbor could become casino-free.

Yet after passing 43-6 in the Senate and moving across the Rotunda to the House, SB 66 didn’t even manage to earn a committee hearing.

Still, with gubernatorial approval of the major gaming bill, the Majestic Star Casino vessels are expected to begin the process of vacating the Buffington Harbor property, and new owner Spectacle Entertainment, LLC should soon declare its formal intent to move one casino inland off the footprint within Gary while relinquishing the second license as it pursues the new license for a Vigo County casino. And that would seem to open up the underutilized Buffington Harbor property for offers, if not place it up for grabs.

But two major intervening events have occurred since Hoosier lawmakers returned home April 25, casting doubt on both the short-term prospects for and long-term viability of the Buffington Harbor project.

One of them took place in Illinois, and the other in Gary itself. Either can be devastating to the fledgling plans. Taken together, both could well prove dispositive.

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