AP NEWS

Chips back on the table for gambling advocates

May 4, 2019

SPRINGFIELD — Stakeholders that have been advocating for a gambling expansion for almost a decade are back at the table with renewed optimism this legislative session.

On Thursday, some of those stakeholders — including local governments who want a casino in their community, private firms that will build or operate the casinos and racetracks who want to convert into racinos — testified at a House executive committee on gambling expansion.

Much of the focus centered on a gambling bill, which failed to clear committee in the previous General Assembly. That bill, which would have added six more casino licenses to the state’s current 10, could prove to be a basis for this year’s bill, which has not been filed yet.

The communities of Rockford, Danville, downtown Chicago, southern Cook County, Lake County and Williamson County would have received licenses under that plan.

Tom McNamara, mayor of Rockford, alluded to a potential rival casino being considered in Beloit, Wis., about 15 minutes away. If they build it before Illinois can pass the right legislation, McNamara said, “it would virtually eliminate the opportunity for Rockford to pursue our own casino.”

“Illinois residents would bypass our community and our state and take their dollars to Wisconsin,” he said.

Sam Cunningham, mayor of Waukegan, said the city is “ready to transform with the addition of a casino to Lake County.”

Derek Blaida, a lobbyist representing Chicago, continued years-long calls for a city-owned casino downtown, which would be overseen by the Chicago Casino Development Authority but managed by a private casino operator.

Blaida also indicated Chicago only would support sports betting, another proposal to expand gambling in the state, if Chicago got its casino license.

The southern portion of the state also could benefit from expanded gambling, said Ron Ellis, Williamson County chairman.

According to Ellis, eight of the state’s 10 most impoverished counties are in the “deep south.”

A casino being considered at Walker’s bluff, a vineyard in Carterville, could pull visitors from the more than 4 million people who live within 250 miles of the county. Building such a casino would create more than 1,200 construction jobs and more than 700 permanent jobs once up and running.

“That’s a huge economic boom,” Ellis said.

Yet, another casino is being considered in Danville, a Vermilion County city near the middle of Illinois’ border with Indiana.

“We’ve been talking about adding a casino here for 28 years,” said Larry Baughn, chair of the Vermilion County board. “At the end of the day, it’s all about job and revenue creation. We desperately need the jobs.”

Between July 2017 and July 2018, Danville’s 1.25 percent population decline was the fourth-worst for any metro area in the nation, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

Plans for a sixth casino, which would be coupled with a standardbred harness horse racing track, already are underway in southern Cook County.

Within the last four years, both of the state’s two standardbred harness tracks, Balmoral and Maywood, shut down.

“The harness racing industry has been pretty much decimated,” said Rick Heidner of Heidner Properties, the firm that would build the new casino, racetrack and hotel complex.

But while such a project could bring back harness racing, thoroughbred racetracks in other parts of the state say they will not fare well if gambling expansion does not apply to them too.

“Racing will only succeed in those areas where income through gaming coincides with commissions on horse racing,” said Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which represents the labor side of horse racing.

Such revenues could come from a measure proposed in last year’s gambling bill that would have allowed video gambling and table games at racetracks, turning them into racinos.

Only one of the state’s three racetracks did not indicate support for that measure.

Tony Petrillo, president of Arlington Park, said he’d like to see lawmakers focus on passing sports betting legislation first, because trying to incorporate too many interests in a comprehensive gambling bill might leave racetracks with the same outcome as last year — nothing.

“While [sports betting] is not the answer to our overall problems, we feel it can reach and expand our customer base until those big gaming issues are worked out,” Petrillo said.

On the other side, the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents nine of Illinois’ 10 casinos, is a major opponent of adding more casinos or allowing racetracks to turn into racinos.

ICGA Executive Director Tom Swoik testified that allowing too many casinos in the state would dilute the market, decreasing revenues for all.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced support for gambling expansion, and Pritzker’s budget proposal depends on added gambling revenue from sports betting.