|By Andy Graham, Herald-Times,
Bloomington, Ind.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 7, 2007 - FRENCH LICK -- Geneva Street shrieked with joy and said she felt like "the heavens opened up" about 8:30 Wednesday night, but she wasn't referring to rainfall.
Street, one of 269 "Orange Shirt" advocates for the casino and hotel properties in Orange County, had just gotten the news that the French Lick Resort and Casino will now proceed basically unencumbered by lawsuits and with Cook Group in charge.
Lauth Resorts & Casino LLC has agreed to sell its 50 percent ownership of the French Lick Resort and Casino -- including the French Lick Springs Hotel, the West Baden Springs Hotel, and the French Lick Springs Casino -- to BSR OC Acquisitions LLC, an affiliate of Bloomington-based Orange County Holdings, LLC., formed to oversee financing for the $382 million project and represent Cook Group interests.
Erstwhile project partners Cook and Lauth had a falling out that produced bitter public disputes, a lawsuit, a countersuit and arbitration proceedings, but the Cook Inc., press release announcing the deal Monday evening said, "this agreement resolves all of the disputes among persons and entities affiliated with Orange County Holdings and Lauth Resorts & Casino."
Cook Group's Steve Ferguson, reached by cell phone Wednesday night, confirmed the deal, but said it still required approval from the Indiana Gaming Commission, which has the topic on its agenda for its 1 p.m. meeting today in Indianapolis. Ferguson said he "didn't anticipate difficulties" arising that would prevent gaming commission approval.
"We look forward to realizing the great potential for south central Indiana this project has, regarding employment and economic development in the area," Ferguson said. Orange County Holdings is structured and empowered to funnel profits from the project back into Orange County and the surrounding area, he said.
Bob Lauth, chairman and CEO of the Indianapolis-based firm, was quoted in the press release as saying, "The people at Lauth are proud of our work in developing and constructing this world-class resort and we are glad we were able to settle our differences. This was a difficult decision, but one which we believe is in the best interests of the project and the community. We wish Orange County Holdings all the best as they operate this magnificent resort for many years to come."
French Lick town councilman Barry Wininger called the agreement "very good news" and elaborated as to why he felt that way.
"Cook has always had a vision for this area," Wininger said by phone Wednesday night. " I think a lot of the other parties maybe got into it for the wrong reasons, looking for a quick buck. Mr. Cook, his wife, Gayle, their son Carl, Steve Ferguson and all the Cook people understood the long-term prognosis for this area.
"It'll take long-term thinking, vision and foresight to make it work, not short-term profit, and the Cook people have shown vision and foresight. They have done this project from their heart, not their wallet. There is a big difference. Anytime you have people with their heart and soul in the project, you can always bet good things are going to happen."
Street thinks of it family terms. Having lost one son to complications from diabetes in March, she had another return home after successful cancer surgery Tuesday and called Wednesday's news "another miracle."
"This is a dream come true!" Street said while doing some evening work at Geneva's Hair Clinic. "This is like a family thing, something we've always wanted to happen. Those two hotels, French Lick and West Baden, represent our families and our livelihood. My dad worked over there. My mother was a nurse there for veterans in 1918. It goes way, way back for us.
"Now, we have our Santa Claus -- Bill Cook came in 1996, came to the rescue. Bill and Gayle, Carl, Steve Ferguson, they are our family. We couldn't do without them. Cook had vision that Lauth didn't."
Lauth spokesman Marc Lotter declined to respond to Wininger's and Street's comments beyond referring back to Bob Lauth's sentiments expressed in the press release and acknowledging both sides were pleased to have any disputes behind them.
Lauth had previously filed suit claiming that Cook had interfered with casino development and spent in a lavish manner, terming Cook's actions malicious and illegal, and Cook had countersued, claiming defamation. The defamation action was unsuccessful, but Cook's counterclaims regarding the abuse of process allegations stood as the lawsuit proceeded through the court system.
Pending gaming commission approval of the agreement, the deal would see all pending lawsuits and arbitration dismissed when final documents are signed later this month.
The French Lick Resort Casino project, as a whole, features 689 guest rooms and suites, a 42,000-square-foot, single-level casino, a fully restored 1917-designed Donald Ross golf course and the new, 18-hole Pete Dye course opening in 2008, two full-service spas with a combined 36 treatment rooms totaling 41,000 square feet and an array of dining and entertainment facilities.
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