Impact of National Championship Continues an Economic Boost Throughout French Lick Community

PGA of America


Published: Tuesday, June 29, 2010 | 3:55 p.m.

How has the 43rd PGA Professional National Championship, which concludes Wednesday, benefited the host French Lick community?

"We have seen another spring in the step of so many volunteers who have longed to support this event and bring the attention of the golf world to Indiana," said Steve Ferguson, chairman of the board of Cook Group, the owners of the French Lick Resort.

"It is great that we can show The PGA of America that we can recruit 750 volunteers, some from around the country, to be here and support this Championship. The people are proud of their roles and proud to have this Championship here. We want this Championship to come back."

PGA Professional Dave Harner, the director of golf operations for French Lick Resort, said that once the Championship began, he and members of his staff had a big burden taken off their collective shoulders.

"You find yourself the most drained, the most over-extended, most frustrated person that has ever lived, and once the first ball is in the air you are feeling the next minute how it all was worth it," said Harner. "You are completely spent, but you realize when you pick yourself back up that this has been a tremendous experience and opportunity.

"I venture to guess that any big event, and the staff behind it, goes through the same feelings. We are happy and proud that this Championship has gone so well."

Ferguson said that the initial impact of the PGA Professional National Championship in French Lick, complete with Golf Channel coverage, will grow.

He compared the impact to what has been an ongoing 14-year process in restoring French Lick Resort and elevating the spirit of the 1,941-member community as well as 650 residents of nearby West Baden.

Ferguson turned back the clock 14 years, reciting elements of a fascinating story.

In 1996, members representing the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana approached the Cook Group in Indianapolis as a last resort trying to salvage a deteriorating West Baden Springs Hotel.

The hotel, once tabbed by developer Lee Sinclair as "the Eighth Wonder of the World," was in a major state of disrepair. The opulent eight-story dome, the largest free-standing dome in the world until the Houston Astrodome was built in 1965, had a portion that collapsed in January 1991. Though the Historic Landmarks Foundation had stepped in to care for the structure, it could not financially support the complete restoration.

The Historic Landmarks Foundation's meeting included Steve Ferguson, chairman of the board of Cook Group, a native of Bloomington, Ind., a former Indiana legislator and current president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

"When they came to us, they said that we were their last hope to save a landmark," said Ferguson. "They said that the entire structure will collapse."

The Cook Group rescued the hotel, but the company's restoration target was much wider and ambitious.

Founded by Bill Cook, the Cook Group – with its headquarters in Bloomington - is the world's largest privately-owned medical device company, employing nearly 10,000 people.

"Bill Cook had the vision to look beyond what improving one structure would do," said Ferguson. "He also saw that the French Lick Springs Hotel needed improvement, and what about helping the town of French Lick itself?

"Bricks and mortar are a lot easier to implant than restoring the psychological side for individuals. The Cook Group saw that there was a need to move to the next level here."

Ferguson said the restoration of West Baden Springs Hotel grew from a $1 million request, which he said "would not go anywhere in helping a building of that size," and soon the total repair cost ballooned to $35 million.

"We now have $90 million invested into the hotel," said Ferguson.

From 1996 through 2004, a variety of restoration projects helped save the West Baden Springs Hotel. In 2004, a group of residents lobbied for a casino to be built at the Resort.

Trump Hotels secured the casino license in 2004, before losing it during a bankruptcy in 2005. As the casino license went back up to bid, Ferguson urged the Cooks to step in full force.

In the spring of 2005, the Cooks purchased the French Lick Springs Hotel, and secured the gaming license in the fall of the same year.

"The gaming industry proceeds went to help this community in so many different ways," said Ferguson. "We saw the immediate improvement in facilities throughout French Lick, which developed civic pride."

Fourteen years ago, Ferguson said, "the climate of the townspeople was down so low. They needed something to boost their spirits, to build pride. This town of great history had to have a belief that they could have something to restore themselves."

The French Lick Resort, with 1,300 employees, has bounced back in remarkable form over the past 14 years. Though a nationwide recession continues its grip, with Indiana currently at 10 percent unemployment, the communities of French Lick and West Baden are at 9.1 percent, which translates to 9 of 10 individuals in Orange County have some form of employment.

"We believe that you have to see an impact to make people step and take notice of the positive effects of change," said Ferguson. "I think of one old Chinese philosophy that 'If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. If you give him fish, you feed him for one day.'

"The face of our state, the face this Resort and the community is on display this week at The PGA Professional National Championship. The success of this resort is a catalyst that we hope will spread."