I can still remember how outraged people were when they found out Danny Tanoos made over $260,000, and even more recently when they found out that Bill Riley received a $40,000 pay raise. For years I’ve wondered, “why is no one outraged that Mel Burks received a $130,000 pay raise in 2019, and currently makes over $600,000 a year.” In 2019, Mel also traveled to Indianapolis to speak as an authority in the mental health community, in support of a casino license being granted to Terre Haute. He did this despite the fact that several studies have shown casinos harm the mental health of a community, but while his motives for speaking might be confusing it could help explain why, also in 2019, the Hamilton Center sought and received certification for the counseling of gambling addictions.
First, let’s look at Mel’s speech in support of a casino license in Vigo county (March 20, 2:47:00). According to local reports, Mel along with over a hundred individuals from the Terre Haute community, traveled to Indianapolis to speak on March 20th, 2019 as a part of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce “All In” initiative. Many of these individuals spoke on behalf of the casino using the often repeated motto that it will “bring jobs” to the city. If you follow the link above you can also listen to mayor Duke Bennett, at approximately 2:39:30, try to convince legislators that “quality of life initiatives” (i.e. casino operators and military contractors) are more important than “walking trails and water parks.” You can also hear Brad Anderson, then Vigo County Commissioner, claim Terre Haute is “all in,” despite widespread opposition, and a 60 to 40 percent vote tally on the casino referendum.
It’s ironic that Mel’s first comment is that he grew up in abject poverty, and he claims to be a servant of the streets, and brags about his five degrees from Indiana State, but then he claims that if one of the two casinos in Gary, the poor city he grew up in, moves to Terre Haute, that will solve all of our problems. Gary had two casinos and it didn’t solve their problems. Several studies have shown that casinos have very little to no positive impact on local economies, but they bring tremendous harm to the most vulnerable members of a community. Despite those studies: Mel Burks, Brad Anderson, Duke Bennett, even Dottie King, and several other local institutions, including the Chamber of Commerce and a majority of the County Commissioners, whole heartedly supported the casino!
I can understand why the average citizen of Terre Haute would support a casino. Our community is desperate for jobs and economic growth. Several of the people who spoke at the state house in support of it read through long lists of economic hardships that Terre Haute is facing. Honestly, it was a little surprising to hear our mayor talk about Terre Haute’s poverty in Indianapolis when he rarely does so here. Our city is in the middle of an extremely difficult downward cycle. Increased poverty leads to increased crime, and increased crime leads to greater poverty levels. Our local rise in crime has led to increased financial costs throughout our criminal justice system, taking millions of dollars that could have been spent on our schools and neighborhoods. Our public defenders office alone spends twice as much as Muncie, a community slightly larger than our own.
That still leaves the question, why on earth would so many business leaders and politicians support a casino, knowing it won’t help? Well, as I mentioned earlier, along with Mel’s pay raise and his speech to the legislator back in 2019, the Hamilton Center also received it’s state certification for counseling gambling addictions. Maybe these conflicts of interest are part of the reason why so many of Hamilton Center’s top executives have resigned over the past several years. So again, that might explain why the Hamilton Center would support it, but why would everyone else? Looking back, who had the most to gain from a casino back in 2019? The answer seems pretty obvious, the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber’s publicity group (RJL Solutions), have been pushing Greg Gibson’s financial interests as though they were Terre Haute’s for years. I admit, what I’ve suggested here might be the answer, but maybe there are other, totally reasonable and totally innocent explanations. My desire, however, is to provide you with the information, let you think, and let you come to your own conclusions.