One Big, Bad Spectacle: Complete History Of Indiana’s Hard Rock Casinos

Posted on October 21, 2020 - Last Updated on November 23, 2020

Two new Indiana Hard Rock Casino projects are currently under construction.

With one in Gary, Indiana and one in Terre Haute, Hard Rock is aiming to become a staple of the Indiana gaming industry.

Gary’s Hard Rock will replace the aging Majestic Star riverboats. Terre Haute’s Hard Rock will be the first-ever casino in the area.

But despite the flashy business plans and pent-up excitement, the new “Rocksinos” are already under the gaming commission’s microscope.

That’s because Spectacle Entertainment, the company behind the projects, has found itself mixed up with some federal investigations.

Spectacle owns the Majestic Stars and is running the show for Gary’s new Rocksino. The company also has ties to Terre Haute’s project.

The Indiana Gaming Commission (IGC) might be pulling Spectacle’s operating license, which could cause some major problems for the Gary property.

Since Gary’s Hard Rock will be ready to open in a few months, now’s a good time to take a look at how Spectacle ended up in this situation.

Just scroll to the bottom if you want to start from the very beginning.

November 2020: IGC Investigation Nears Completion

At the IGC’s November 23 meeting, the commission announced that the Spectacle investigation is nearing its end.

After months of interviews and legwork, the IGC believes that most of Spectacle has acted in good faith.

However, not everyone is off the hook.

According to IGC Executive Director Sara Tait, the commission has identified about 10 individuals who “have engaged in activities that are contrary to our regulations as well as the Riverboat Gambling Act.”

So the question is: what does this mean for Spectacle Entertainment and its casino license?

The IGC is waiting on Spectacle to send over a plan for remedying the situation. It was hoping to have that plan in time for that Nov. 23 meeting, but as of that afternoon, Spectacle hadn’t sent anything over yet.

The commission set a 30-day deadline for Spectacle to send that plan over.

If the company doesn’t deliver a satisfactory plan within 30 days, then the IGC will call an emergency meeting and decide Spectacle’s fate on its own.

Commissioner Susan Williams voiced her concerns about Spectacle taking its time to develop a plan.

“I would say within the next 30 days, two weeks to 30 days, we need to have something in our hands that gives us some level of comfort that this operator is either going to be with us or going to be gone.”

In other words, we’ll finally have an end to the Spectacle situation within a few weeks. Regardless of how the final decision plays out, we’ll know Spectacle’s fate before Christmas.

September 2020: John Keeler indicted

Spectacle Entertainment might have freed up Terre Haute’s Hard Rock project, but it was still under investigation from the IGC and the FBI because of the Charles O’Neil situation.

As long as that investigation was ongoing, Spectacle was always right on the edge of having some major problem potentially develop with its Gary Hard Rock project.

That investigation finally started making some progress in September, and now Spectacle is back in hot water.

An FBI raid into Spectacle Executive John Keeler’s home uncovered some connections between Keeler and the money funneling situation.

That led to a federal indictment for Keeler, alleging that just like Charles O’Neil, Keeler had also illegally contributed money to Brent Waltz’s political campaign.

Now Spectacle Entertainment is in some big trouble.

The IGC immediately pulled Keeler’s license, and might end up doing the same to Spectacle Entertainment as a whole.

There’s no subsidiary company to sell off in order to appease the gaming commission this time, so things won’t resolve as smoothly as Terre Haute’s situation.

If the IGC pulls Spectacle’s license, the Majestic Star Casinos will have to shut down, since there will be no one to operate them.

That would be the worst case scenario for the company.

Since Gary’s new Hard Rock is opening in a few months, if the situation isn’t resolved by then, there’s going to be a brand new casino sitting around with no one to run it.

Things could get messy, but there’s no way to know what will happen until the IGC makes a final decision.

June 2020: Thieves target Gary, Indiana Hard Rock Casino

COVID-19 flipped the gaming world on its head back in March.

Spectacle Entertainment temporarily hit the pause button on the Hard Rock’s construction in Gary because of the pandemic.

With the construction equipment locked away in containers, there wasn’t much happening at the build site for a while.

Unfortunately, a group of thieves took notice of the empty construction site.

The thieves broke into the containers and stole about $25,000 worth of equipment.

Since the health crisis had stopped the construction work, no one even noticed that the equipment was missing until work resumed weeks later.

By then, the equipment was long-gone and construction couldn’t resume until it was replaced.

So between the COVID-related delays and the missing equipment, things were running behind schedule.

Gary’s Hard Rock was no longer going to be ready by New Year’s Eve, and now plans to open sometime in early 2021.

May 2020: Spectacle Jack snags casino license

The investigation into Spectacle Entertainment was underway, but it was going to take some time.

The IGC doesn’t have the resources to launch a full investigation into breaches of federal law, so the commission was mainly relying on what the Federal Government could uncover about the situation.

The IGC just wasn’t going to grant Spectacle Jack a new casino license while its parent company was under investigation, so things were at a stand still.

With no indication of how long all of this was going to take, Spectacle Entertainment decided to make some moves.

The company decided to offer the IGC an olive branch in order to unfreeze Terre Haute’s Hard Rock project.

First, it removed a pair of its officials that were linked to O’Neil’s money funneling court case.

Next, Spectacle Entertainment sold off Spectacle Jack to Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson.

After the company changed hands, it no longer had ties to the investigation into Spectacle Entertainment, so things could finally move forward.

The IGC awarded Spectacle Jack’s new owner with the Terre Haute casino license, and the project finally got back on track.

January 2020: Charles O’Neil pleads guilty

Buckle up, because this is where things start to get messy.

Less than two weeks after ground broke on Gary’s Hard Rock, a certain court case in Virginia started causing trouble for the Terre Haute project.

In that case, a man named Charles O’Neil pleaded guilty to funneling money from Centaur Gaming into Brent Waltz’s political campaign. Waltz ran unsuccessfully for election in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District back in 2016.

So what does this have to do with Terre Haute’s Rocksino?

At the time, some of the executives involved with Centaur Gaming’s money funneling were running the show at Spectacle Entertainment. Spectacle Entertainment owned Spectacle Jack, so Terre Haute’s new casino now had some inconvenient ties to O’Neil’s situation.

Since Spectacle Jack was the only company that applied for the Terre Haute casino license, it now found itself in some hot water.

The IGC decided to postpone that Feb. 7 meeting, when Spectacle Jack would have likely been awarded the casino license. Instead, it started an investigation into the company.

January 2020: Construction starts in Gary

Spectacle Entertainment made a show out of the Hard Rock’s ground breaking.

The company brought in the remaining members of the Jackson 5 for the ceremony. Spectacle announced that it’s ready to “rock the region!”

Construction began on the $300 million project, with the goal of a New Year’s Eve grand opening.

December 2019: Terre Haute Rocksino

This is when the ball got rolling in Terre Haute. The city wanted to add a new casino to the area.

The building would bring new jobs and tourism to the city, but first it would need a license.

In the case of Gary’s Hard Rock, Spectacle is just transferring Majestic Star’s casino license over into the new building.

Since Terre Haute has never had a casino before, that wouldn’t be possible this time around. The Indiana Gaming Commission (IGC) would need to issue a brand-new license for the area.

The IGC opened up applications to snag that new license.

Spectacle Jack, which was a subsidiary of Spectacle Entertainment, was the only company that bothered to apply by the Dec. 1 deadline.

Since there was only one applicant, things got moving pretty quickly. The IGC scheduled a meeting for Feb. 7 to possibly award Spectacle Jack with the new license.

November 2018: Spectacle buys Majestic Star

Enter, Spectacle Entertainment.

Now that land-based casinos were on the table, there was money to be made.

At this point, Caesars Southern Indiana was already planning on moving into a new building, and out of its original riverboat. That new building opened up in 2019.

Spectacle Entertainment decided that it wanted a piece of the land-based action.

The company bought out both Majestic Star Casinos, and starting lobbying the city of Gary to consolidate the two riverboats into a new land-based casino.

Spectacle got its way, and soon enough, plans were in place to start building Gary’s Hard Rock Casino.

May 2015: Indiana land-based casinos legalized

By the time 2015 came around, casino operators were sick of Indiana’s restrictive laws.

Riverboats were still the only type of casino you could build in the state, and there are only so many prime locations on the state’s shorelines.

Eventually, lawmakers drafted bills to allow for the construction of casinos on land throughout the state.

Then, Gov. Mike Pence didn’t sign the bill, but he didn’t stand in the way either. The bill became law and Indiana was off to the races.

December 2005: Majestic buys Donald Trump’s casino

Fast forward to 2005, and Majestic Star was sick of sharing the Gary customer base.

Trump Casino was right next door, and the two riverboats were in constant competition to draw in the same customers.

“Right next door” doesn’t even do the situation justice. The two casinos were practically right on top of each other.

So how do you get rid of your closest competition?

Well, the easiest way is to just buy them out, so that’s exactly what Majestic Star did.

It purchased Trump Casino for $253 million and renamed it Majestic Star II. The riverboat has held that name ever since.

June 1996: Majestic Star Casino 0pens

1996 was still the early days of Indiana gambling.

The state’s first casino opened its doors in December 1995, so the entire industry was less than a year old.

Gary’s Majestic Star Casino was one of the first to open for business throughout the state.

Since Gary is right next to Chicago, the casino attracted customers from both Indiana and neighboring Illinois.

Back then, only riverboat casinos were allowed, so there were no large buildings on land for gambling.

Photo by Associated Press
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Jake Garza

Jake Garza is a sports writer based in Indianapolis, IN. He's an Indiana University graduate who's spent time as a sports reporter covering teams at the prep, collegiate and professional levels.

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