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Kadner: Homewood antes up in casino game

Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld

Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld

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Updated: December 29, 2012 6:22AM



Homewood has entered the race for a south suburban casino.

“Oh, Lord almighty,” Mayor Rich Hofeld said when I called Tuesday. “And I’m a nongambler.”

Country Club Hills, Calumet City and Ford Heights are among the usual suspects when it comes to potential casino sites in the Southland.

This is the first time Homewood, a middle-class suburb with an average home value of $202,000, has stuck its toe in the water.

“No, you couldn’t call us an impoverished community,” Hofeld said.

Once upon a time, long ago, this state passed a riverboat gambling law to benefit economically depressed cities located near rivers.

That was before Rosemont had the law changed so it could put in a bid for a casino license.

Back in the days when Chicago’s mayor said he didn’t want any stinking casino.

The fact that Homewood is even thinking about casino development is an indication of how desperate municipalities in these parts are for revenue and jobs.

Homewood is partnering with neighboring East Hazel Crest, a smaller suburb that is poorer, in this casino venture.

The 22 acres the two municipalities are using as a bargaining chip include the site of the former Sheraton Hotel in Homewood, just south of Interstate 80 on the west side of Halsted Street.

When the hotel was built more than 30 years ago, it was considered a crown jewel of the Southland.

Now it sits vacant, abandoned with no hope of resurrection.

“I would have been happy to see the property turned into grass,” Hofeld said. “It would have been an improvement.”

The mayor said casino operators first approached him a couple of years ago.

More recent, Hofeld said, he and the mayor of East Hazel Crest visited the operations of two of those casino operators, and they in turn paid a personal visit to inspect the suburban site.

“But we haven’t picked a developer,” Hofeld said. “We’re going to put out (a request for proposals) and let other casino operators come in with bids.

“We want the very best bid. The one that will benefit our two communities the most.”

Homewood has a thriving commercial area on Halsted Street, but my guess is Hofeld sees the writing on the wall.

Online sales are booming this Christmas season, as they have in the past.

Customers don’t have to pay sales tax for merchandise on many of those sites.

Since many online “stores” don’t actually operate any stores, just warehouses, they don’t have to pay the higher property tax that stores such as Best Buy and Sears do when they locate in the Cook County suburbs.

Its those sales and property taxes that pay for things such as police officers, fire departments, street repairs, schools and snow removal.

So even suburbs like Homewood recognize that gambling revenue may be their salvation.

That suburb also was one of the few in the Southland to approve video gambling in restaurants and bars under a new state law.

“I think we had two people speak out against it at the meeting where it was approved,” Hofeld said.

Nevertheless, he’s planning a large public meeting in December to answer questions from community residents about the casino plan.

“I want to inform our citizens about every aspect of this,” Hofeld said. “I want to make sure they’re not hearing any false rumors or reaching a decision based on poor information.”

Of course, at this moment, there are no available casino licenses in Illinois.

The Legislature in the spring passed a bill creating five new casino licenses, but that measure was vetoed by the governor.

There has been talk about the Legislature overriding the governor’s veto in Springfield this month, but it’s uncertain that the necessary votes can be mustered.

“Everything we’re hearing is that if something doesn’t get done in this veto session, a gambling expansion bill will be passed early next year,” Hofeld said. “It’s going to happen.”

Every gambling expansion bill that’s been submitted in the Legislature names specific casino locations, such as Chicago, Rockford, Park City, Danville.

But when it comes to the south suburbs, only a large geographic region is specified.

Maybe that’s a good thing, allowing for competition, which could produce the best possible result.

Maybe not.

It seems that communities that ought to be working together to put forth the best proposal for the region, one that draws customers away from Indiana, are instead expending a lot of time and energy trying to outwit each other.

“Our casino would be the only one visible from I-80,” Hofeld said. “It would be 60 seconds off the exit. No one else can say that.”

It also would be just south of Harvey (and some of its strip clubs) and not far from the South Holland village limits.

So there could be expanded employment benefits for other municipalities.

There’s no doubt that there are millions of dollars being wagered in Indiana by Illinois residents.

It’s been estimated that 80 percent of the casino customers in northwest Indiana come from Illinois.

But no casino is going to solve the massive economic challenges facing the Southland.

What’s really needed is an organized economic development plan put together by Cook County, the state, local mayors and local business leaders.

The issues of unemployment, poverty, home foreclosure, skyrocketing property tax bills, falling property values and business blight need to be addressed.

Until then, just like those of us who play Powerball hoping to strike it rich, the south suburbs are going to roll the dice on casino gambling.

“Someone’s got to win,” as lottery players always say.

Of course, the other truth is a lot more people are going to lose.



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