French Lick Resort's $600 Million Restoration Completed
A decade ago, sister towns of West Baden Springs and French Lick (located one mile apart) were in trouble. Jobs were scarce, local shops were closing, and the younger generation was moving away for better opportunities and a brighter future. Locals were not naïve, they knew they had a problem. For years, citizens would caravan to the state capitol in Indianapolis to ask for help. Their goal: to convince politicians to grant a gambling license to a developer who would rebuild and restore French Lick Resort. -
In order to cut through political divisiveness, countless rallies were held and petitions distributed. Most fell on deaf ears. "I hand it to the citizens," said State Representative Tom Saunders. "They really pushed their case and tried to get our attention. Their towns are in Orange County, Indiana. They would show up wearing orange shirts and handed out fresh oranges to plead their case. Unfortunately, their request for a gambling license was blocked by lack of bipartisan support."
A Man's Best Friend To The Rescue Geneva Street, a feisty, red-headed beautician in French Lick, was one of the most vocal supporters. In a deft move, she realized State Senator Larry Borst, a practicing veterinarian, was the logjam. So, she made an appointment for her dog to receive a check-up with veterinarian Borst.
"It was inventive and effective," stated Saunders. "Although Senator Borst probably felt hoodwinked by the ruse, it worked." With a gaming license in hand, the challenge now lay to find a steward, with deep enough pockets and resolve, to rebuild the resort. Several developers, including Donald Trump, evaluated the proposition. Cook Medical, a family-owned company with roots in Indiana for over 50 years, stepped up to the plate. Cook Medical, founded by Bill Cook with nothing more than a needle, wire, and catheter; now manufacturers 16,000 medical devices, operates in 135 countries, and employees 12,000 people. It is a true American success story. The company produces over 25 million devices per year for medical procedures performed around the world. "The success of French Lick Resort is an example of Hoosier values," lauded Saunders. "Media typically portrays the worst in collaborative public and private endeavors. Here we have the best of the best."
The Most Ambitious, Private Restoration Project In America French Lick Resort is comprised of two hotels: the West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Springs Hotel.
French Lick Springs Hotel
"When I first toured the West Baden Springs Hotel, about an hour south of our global headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana, I was dismayed to see its decay and disrepair," sighed Steve Ferguson, Chairman of the Board at Cook Group. "One look at the fabled domed lobby of the hotel and I felt it was an important part of Indiana and America's history that needed to be saved. It had been vacant since the closure of Northwood Institute in 1984. "Our company has a long history of historic preservation. We mandate adaptive reuse to restore important buildings to their original splendor and make them self-supportive which, in turn, guarantees their future viability." Cook Medical's initial restoration commitment was $12 million. "When we do things, we do them right. A decision was made to purchase both West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Springs Hotel. It began the largest private restoration project completed in America," said Steve. "The restoration began in 1996 and was completed in 2007. To date, we have committed $600 million to the resort. "The key to the success of the restoration was strong leadership and a feeling of trust among government officials, our company, and local citizens. When we all come together, good things happen. Yes, conflicts and disagreements will occur, but if everyone has a common goal, with no hidden agendas, it is easier to achieve the ultimate goal."
French Lick Spring Hotel Lobby
This enormous undertaking required both hotels to remain closed for over a year of heavy construction. Employees were paid full salaries and assigned other job responsibilities or were allowed to enroll in local community colleges for continuing education classes. "We knew if we took care of our employees and their families, they would, in turn, take care of future customers," said Steve. "I was overcome with emotion when one of our employees broke down in tears of gratitude after completing his GED [general education degree]."