The City of Rockford has a new casino in the works, and officials will soon evaluate possible sites and construction plans.
State government is granting six new casino licenses as part of the gambling expansion bill signed in May. One of these is for Rockford, and city government is currently accepting proposals. Mayor Tom McNamara says the proposals include details such as where the casino will be built, and how it will run.
"First they need to have a project labor agreement," he said. "Second, we want to bring additional benefits to our community, such as a hotel. Third, we want to discuss revenue sharing opportunities the casino could provide to the city, as well as what they would do to support our local social services and nonprofits."
In addition, the site must be within Rockford city limits, or on land that can be directly annexed.
Two sites could be in the mix. First is the former Clock Tower Hotel and Resort next to Interstate 90. Hard Rock International expressed interest in developing it, and the project is being touted by Cheap Trick front man Rick Nielsen. Republican state Sen. Dave Syverson, who drafted much of the state's gambling expansion law, says the site's location also makes it attractive to out-of-town visitors.
"If it was downtown, for example, McHenry County would end up going to Elgin instead of to Rockford, but this makes Rockford closer, so we're able to draw from the rooftops of McHenry County and from Wisconsin," he said.
The other site is downtown, immediately south of the coming Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center. Wisconsin-based Gorman and Company is responsible for the hotel and wants to expand its work to building a casino. Democratic state Sen. Steve Stadelman says this location also has advantages.
"I think it's true that a casino downtown by itself doesn't necessarily generate economic development on its own, but I think as part of a larger entertainment complex, I think it's an easy idea to sell, that this could be a boost downtown," he said.
One city with extensive downtown casino experience is Elgin. The Grand Victoria Casino opened there in 1994, when Illinois approved ten licenses for riverboat casinos. Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain says the proposal was contentious.
"They were scared as to what was going to happen," he said. "The community was divided. Our mayor at the time, George Van De Voorde, worked to get the casino approved and it was approved by a 4-3 vote."
One concern was that the Grand Victoria would bring crime to the area. Kaptain says the opposite happened.
"The area around the casino become one of the safest in the downtown," he said. "Literally I've been in their basement and looked at the security cameras. Dozens and dozens of security cameras. They have their own security force."
Community members also hoped more people would frequent downtown businesses and bring more commerce to the area. Kaptain says that didn't exactly work out either.
"If they want to eat, they're going to eat on that property," he said. "They're going to make their money. Then they get back in their car and go home. And gamblers don't necessarily stop in a community and say, 'Well geez, I'm going to go buy a shirt or get a suit while I'm here.' They just don't do that."
What has gone as planned is the revenue stream. Kaptain credits the casino with providing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to Elgin since 1994. Competition in the gaming sector has reduced its annual contribution, but the Mayor says the city has made effective use of the funds.
"Our approach was that we never used the money that we got from the casino for operating funds," Kaptain said. "We used it for special projects. We used it for street resurfacing. We never paid wages from those funds, and that was probably the best decision the city council in Elgin ever made."
As for Rockford, both the interstate and downtown proposals are still in the planning stages. Sen. Stadelman says he wouldn't be surprised if other casino operators introduce their own ideas.
"I think both proposals are extremely attractive, but I want to see what else may be put forth as far as an offer the city will consider before I offer any other thoughts or judgements on it," he said.
Syverson, on the other hand, prefers the I-90 site. And though the city and casino operators are acting quickly, Stadelman says the process is far from over:
"We just passed the state legislation in May. The deadline for proposals is this month, and by October the state Board will make a decision. So it's a very expedited process, it's very quick, but it's very exciting as well."
The City of Rockford is not limited in how many proposals it can send to the Gaming Board, but only one operator will ultimately receive the license.