BY MOLLY BRUSH
It was 1996 and West Baden Springs Hotel was in dire straits. The magnificent structure and its atrium — dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” during its heyday in the early 1900s — had been vacant for 13 years. It was in such disrepair that a section had collapsed, and the entire building was in danger of following suit. Now, 10 years after completion of a restoration project undertaken by Bloomington-based Cook Group, West Baden Springs Hotel and nearby French Lick Springs Hotel have regained their former grandeur, and, in the process, have helped to revive the local economy.
French Lick Resort opened in November 2006, the culmination of a decade of renovation and an investment of $560 million by Cook Group. In addition to the two hotels, the resort includes the 51,000-square-foot French Lick Casino, 165,000 square feet of meeting and event space, three award-winning golf courses, two full-service spas, and numerous restaurants and other attractions.
The resort has collected accolades by the armful, including being named Best Historic Hotel in the 2015 USA Today “10Best” Readers’ Choice Travel Awards. West Baden Springs Hotel was named best hotel in Indiana by U.S. News & World Report in 2016.
But for Steve Ferguson, president of French Lick Resort and Cook Group chairman of the board, those honors tell only part of the story. Equally important, he says, is the way in which the resort has transformed the surrounding community.
“This is an impact project, and it impacts the whole region,” Ferguson says.
That impact has been dramatic. In the late 20th century, Orange County communities, much like the two hotels, had fallen on hard times. Unemployment was high and household income was low. Businesses had closed and abandoned buildings and vacant lots were common.
Today, as French Lick Resort celebrates its 10th anniversary, the region is thriving. The resort employs nearly 1,700 people; 67 percent of them live in Orange County.
“It has literally changed their lives,” Ferguson says of the opportunities the resort has offered area residents. “Not only their jobs, but their lives and the way they live, the way they take care of their kids, and the way they take care of their community.”
The region also has seen unprecedented economic development. Downtown French Lick now boasts a $6 million mixed-use development area, and a number of new hotels, restaurants, and other businesses have opened, along with attractions such as a local history museum, a water park, a winery, and a distillery.
Ferguson is proud of what has been accomplished over the past decade, but he’s not content. By the time French Lick Resort celebrates its 20th anniversary, he wants it to be the best resort in the country — and to continue to serve as an engine of progress for the region.
“We want it to be enjoyed, to be lived in, to provide employment, to benefit the towns and the people,” Ferguson says. “That’s the impact.”