Gary may get extra public safety cash from casino food and beverage tax

Wednesday 26th February 2020

The $300 million Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana could be among the safest gaming facilities in the state when it opens at the end of the year, or early next year, adjacent to the Borman Expressway at Burr Street in Gary.

An Indiana Senate committee amended House Bill 1065 Tuesday to impose a 1% special tax on food and beverage sales at the new casino that would be dedicated to funding municipal public safety efforts within one mile of the casino property.

If the new tax ultimately becomes law, it would be the first food and beverage tax in Northwest Indiana and the only one in the state specifically allocated to casino-area law enforcement.

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Gary Mayor Jerome Prince said he initially hoped to persuade Hoosier lawmakers to authorize a citywide food and beverage tax to generate approximately $1 million a year for public safety across the Steel City.

However, after finding insufficient support for that idea among representatives and senators at the Statehouse, Prince said he took the best deal he could get.

"It's a step in the right direction," Prince said. "Perhaps getting it passed in this form might provide or create opportunities for some expansion in the future. I think it's good that we've gotten it to move."

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has not yet completed its projection of how much revenue might be generated each year under the new tax.

But Prince said whether it's $100,000, or significantly more, his administration will use the funds in creative ways to ensure the millions of annual visitors and 1,400 workers at the new casino are safe and protected 24 hours a day.

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"There are a lot of creative approaches to public safety right now, including drone surveillance cameras, things of that nature," Prince said. "I would say it would be spent in the most efficient manner."

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"Any efforts to secure our city, any portion or all portions of the city certainly would be appreciated by all, and it certainly would go at least considerable ways to help change the perception."

Spectacle Entertainment, owner of the new casino and Gary's existing Majestic Star casinos, supports the city's efforts to win state approval for a food and beverage tax, said John Keeler, Spectacle vice president and general counsel.

Even Lake County tourism chief Speros Batistatos, who generally opposes using food and beverage tax revenue for standard municipal services, said he's fine with the Gary proposal because it will benefit the Region's hospitality industry.

"Wherever you go, safety is an issue. Not just in Gary -- anywhere in today's day and age," Batistatos said. "So plowing that money back into the casino experience and the hospitality experience, at least in my mind, seems like an appropriate one-off in this instance."

Bet on quiet year for gaming legislation at Indiana Statehouse

The new tax still is far from a done deal. It must next week pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and be re-approved by the Republican-controlled House, to advance to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Typically, GOP state lawmakers only authorize localities to enact a food and beverage tax. The Gary provision is unique because it imposes the tax directly -- a difference that might be hard for some "no new taxes" Republicans to swallow in an election year.

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Chief Political Reporter

Dan has reported on Indiana state government for The Times since 2009. He also covers casinos, campaigns and corruption.

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