Kadner: The south suburban casino lottery
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org March 4, 2014 6:14PM
Hundreds of people packed into the Tinley Park Convention Center Monday night, March 3, 2014, for an Illinois House committee hearing on casino expansion in Illinois. The meeting was chaired by state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) who is the chief sponsor of the gambling expansion bill in the House. | Phil Kadner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 6, 2014 6:25AM
Local mayors can’t get together on a single site for a gambling casino in the south suburbs, and there also seems to be wide disagreement on a revenue-sharing plan if a casino eventually is built.
That much seemed evident after nearly four hours of testimony Monday night before an Illinois House committee charged with putting together a gambling expansion bill this spring.
Hundreds of people packed into a room at the Tinley Park Convention Center for a public hearing chaired by state Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, the chief sponsor of the gambling bill in the House.
Rita refused to call the gambling bill (which had passed the Senate) for a vote last spring, saying he wanted to hold public hearings statewide to give interested parties an opportunity to have input into the process.
Rita also said he was bothered by the fact that while the bill would create five new casinos, four were designated for specific cities (including Chicago) while the one in the south suburbs would be somewhere within an area encompassing six Cook County townships.
Rita had hoped that a consensus might form for a specific location as the best for the south suburbs. But after testimony Monday from representatives of Calumet City, Chicago Heights, Country Club Hills, East Hazel Crest, Ford Heights, Homewood and Lynwood, it became apparent that each of those suburbs wants a chance to make its case for a casino before the Illinois Gaming Board.
State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Orland Hills, testifying with a group representing Country Club Hills, said he thought that city had the best plan and would generate the most revenue for south Cook County, and he urged the House panel to name Country Club Hills as the casino site.
The Country Club Hills contingent, led by Mayor Dwight Welch, made the most effective presentation of the night by bringing with them Bill Paulos, chief executive and co-founder of Cannery Casino Resorts.
Paulos said his company was prepared to invest $200 million in building and running a casino near 175th Street and Cicero Avenue and was prepared to put a “shovel in the ground tomorrow.”
Cannery now operates two casinos in Las Vegas, Paulos said, a casino-racetrack outside Pittsburgh and a racetrack in New Hampshire. He said he has developed 15 “world-class casinos” throughout the world, including the Luxor, Excalibur and New York New York in Las Vegas and Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia.
Paulos said more than 1.7 million adults older than 21 live with 7.5 miles of the Country Club Hills site and that 250,000 cars a day travel over three interstates nearby (I-57, I-80 and I-294). He predicted that a casino in Country Club Hills would generate more tax revenue for the state and the south suburbs than any other Southland location.
Welch urged the legislators to designate his city the site for the casino, noting that Country Club Hills is the only one so far to sign on to a revenue-sharing plan proposed by the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.
However, that plan, explained in only the broadest of terms at the hearing by association president Paul Braun, the mayor of Flossmoor, received a cold shoulder from officials of most of the other towns seeking the casino.
Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin said the SSMMA plan would distribute revenue from the casino across 43 communities and his village and others actually could lose money.
Ford Heights and several other impoverished south suburbs receive a share of the revenue from the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, the most successful casino in Illinois, but risk losing that money if they agree to take some of another casino’s revenue, Griffin said.
He said if Ford Heights obtains the casino license, it would share the revenue only with the poorest south suburbs (including Dixmoor, Harvey, Phoenix, Posen, Riverdale, Robbins and Sauk Village).
Braun said SSMMA wouldn’t even attempt to define how much money a south suburban casino would share with the other 43 towns but said each municipality’s share would be determined on a sliding scale based on financial need.
I was told that among the communities sharing in the casino profits would be Tinley Park and Orland Park — a fact that visibly rankled some members of the House panel who felt those towns now generate enough local tax revenue from their shopping malls.
Operators of the two casinos in Joliet also testified at Monday night’s hearing, saying their revenue dropped 25 percent after Illinois passed an anti-smoking law and is now down more than 40 percent with the opening of the Rivers Casino.
They said the opening of a casino between the Indiana border and Joliet would further “cannibalize” the Southland gambling base and not increase overall tax revenue.
The Joliet casino officials noted that under Illinois’ video gambling law, 1,350 slot machines have been added at bars and restaurants in the south suburbs, a number that’s growing, and that statewide the impact has been the equivalent of adding 12 casinos.
The Hollywood Casino in Joliet has 1,100 slot machines, according to its website.
But their arguments didn’t seem to impress the committee members, one of whom compared their pleas to those of a municipality trying to prevent a Home Depot or Wal-Mart from opening in a nearby town because it might attract some of the same customers.
Anti-gambling forces also testified, citing a litany of personal tragedies that befall gambling addicts, including bankruptcy, suicide and even murder.
I’m not sure what Rita took away from the hearing, but it was depressing to see mostly struggling south suburbs ready to battle each other in hopes of winning a casino lottery.
Like the state lottery, the odds are high, but desperate people cling to their dreams of hitting the jackpot.
I can’t blame them. The “action” alone is good for a temporary high.