Gaming Commission Approves Aztar Deal

By Maureen Hayden
Evansville Business Magazine

Casino and hotel operator Columbia Sussex is one step closer to taking over Casino Aztar after the Indiana Gaming Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve the privately held company's $2.8 billion acquisition of Aztar Corp.

At a commission meeting in Indianapolis late last week, Columbia Sussex president and owner William "Bill" Yung promised to continue Aztar's record of corporate participation and support in Evansville and said his company's pay levels would remain competitive with the rest of the gaming industry.

Yung also announced that Jim Brown will remain on as general manager and president of the Evansville property after it changes ownership. Brown's continued presence with the casino was a key factor in Columbia Sussex winning local support for the deal from Evansville civic and business leaders.

Brown, who is on vacation this week, couldn't be reached for comment, but in a statement released today by Columbia Sussex, Yung said he was pleased with Brown's willingness to join his company once the sale is completed.

"We're delighted that Jim will continue as GM at the Evansville property and we expect to take advantage of his experience by expanding his role in Columbia's corporate community relations programs," Yung said.

Columbia Sussex still needs the approval of gaming regulators in Nevada and New Jersey. Indiana Gaming Commission member Don Vowels, an Evansville attorney, had requested the commission's vote be postponed to allow Columbia Sussex to provide additional financial information about the company. Vowels has been public about his concerns about Columbia Sussex's past record in the gaming industry, and specifically has questioned Yung's willingness to invest in the Evansville community. Among those present at the Commission meeting was Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who had earlier echoed Vowels' concerns. In the statement released today, Yung described Weinzapfel had been "open and candid" about his concerns. "We have assured him that we are committed to continuing the tradition of corporate citizenship that Casino Aztar has established in the Evansville area," Yung said.

Casino Aztar faces financial pressure from competing casinos in the area, including the state's newest casino at the $382 million French Lick Resort in Orange County, Ind.

In a related development, two Northwest Indiana men have been appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels to the Indiana Gaming Commission to fill vacancies that opened up earlier this year. Tim Walsh, an investment adviser with Walsh Financial Services in Crown Point, and Thomas Swihart, a CPA with Weichman and Associates in Munster, will join the commission.