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Casino Plans Unveiled In Rockford Public Hearing

Rockford residents had the chance Monday to hear about the three plans for a new casino. 

Crowds packed the Coronado Performing Arts Center for the city's public hearing. Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara was optimistic as he kicked off the night's events.

"All three organizations believe in the City of Rockford," he said. "All three want to invest their dollars in the City of Rockford, and all three see potential in a community that continues its comeback." 

First to present was Forest City Casino. This group owns a 136-acre patch of land south of MercyHealth's Javon Bea Hospital. Developer Tom LaSalle said the emphasis was on adding facilities such as a waterpark and luxury golf to complement the casino.

"We have this huge entertainment district, if you will," he said. "It's family-oriented; protecting the family, yet giving the opportunities for adult entertainment -- and giving everyone a place to go and things to do. It's going to bring more people into the area and it's going to keep people who are otherwise coming, and give them more to do." 

Master developer Daryn Lazann said they also want to work with the nearby Sportscore facilities.

"It's seen tremendous growth," he said. "We wholeheartedly endorse and support that synergistic relationship. We hope to provide the lodging, the entertainment, the trips, to make that a more successful facility."

Next up was Hard Rock International. Their casino would be built on the former site of the Clock Tower Hotel and Resort near I-90. Cheap Trick front man Rick Neilsen says he continues to support Hard Rock's plan.

"I've got a few guitars that I want to get put someplace here in town," he said. "I don't need a job, but a lot of people do. This will be a good investment." 

Hard Rock emphasized its ability to attract visitors through the strength of its brand and bring in musical acts. Chief Operating Officer Jon Lucas stressed the company's proven track record as a casino and hotel operator, particularly after a change of ownership in 2007.

"We now have 245 branded Hard Rock venues. We had back then, how many, Jeff? 133," he said. "So you can see the growth of this company over the last 12 years, but there's more growth to come and we hope the next one is here in Rockford." 

Finally, there's Gorman and Company. This firm emphasized their choice to build a casino downtown instead of on the east side. Market advisor Steve Gallaway said it was a mattter of revitalization.

"I think as you go forward and you look at what matters to you, you really have to ask yourself that question," he said. "Do you really want a casino that's more of a box, which will have a positive economic impact, or do you want a casino that's really going to make their downtown area flourish?"

Gorman would build the casino as an extension of its work on the former Amerock Hotel, which is being turned into an Embassy Suites. Gorman Illinois Market President Ron Clewer says that work, along with facilities such as a "Rock and Brew" restaurant, would match the neighborhood's character.

"Along the river, the current steel-skinned building you see, the skin will be stripped off," he said. "We'll put brick and stone on the outside to replicate the original Water Power District. To create or recreate the historic district that was the Water Power District into, now, the Water Power Entertainment District."

After the plans were unveiled, City officials opened the floor to public comment. Some residents expressed support for specific casinos, with Hard Rock receiving several rounds of applause. But there were also concerns about the jobs these casinos would offer. Resident Stan Campbell also raised the specter of problem gambling.

"Someone can lose their life savings in one sitting, so we are talking about maybe 5-to-10 thousand people within the Rockford/Winnebago County area whose addictions could affect families, businesses, and community," he said.

Pastor Violet Johnicer of Brooke Road United Methodist Church even wanted a second public forum to discuss such concerns.

"Future mayors and future pastors will have a lot to do to clean up the work that might happen here now," she said.

But lawyer Cezar Froelich, who represents the City, said the "moral ship" had sailed. Now, local government will examine the proposals.

"Having the aldermanic hearing on the 30th, answering questions on that day of the aldermen," he said. "The proposals will be there. They can answer any questions the aldermen have for them then, and a recommendation will be made shortly after that with the city council."

The City has until October 25th to send one or more casino plans to the Illinois Gaming Board.

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