Rockford casino proposal takes on urgency as Beloit plans move ahead

Rockford area officials have sought a casino for decades as a way to help deal with economic problems. And even with a casino looking to open just over the border in Wisconsin, they still feel that way. In this Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Guy Stephens looks at the area’s casino craving.

By Guy Stephens
WNIJ News

ROCKFORD — State Sen. Dave Syverson has been pushing for a Rockford casino for years. The Rockford Republican says casinos were started in Illinois to keep money from leaving the state, and that continues to be a big issue.

“That was clear last year when it was reported that $1.6 billion left Illinois just to go to the five surrounding states for entertainment and casinos in those locations,” Syverson said, “and now you add to it what could be the largest gaming casino in the Midwest in Beloit. Now you’re taking that number over $2 billion a year.”

Syverson was talking about a Ho-Chunk Nation tribal casinoplanned north of Rockford just over the Wisconsin state line.

Past efforts there had been stymied by intertribal conflicts and resistance from state and federal government.

But at a noisy public gathering in Beloit, Ho-Chunk Nation President Wilfrid Cleveland said a number of those issues have been resolved. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is on board along with local officials, Cleveland said. With a new administration in Washington, he’s now confident the expansive resort and casino complex will happen.

“A lot of people know it’s been on the table for a number of years,” Cleveland said, “and we feel that we’re, we’re moving it, moving it in a positive direction.”

Cleveland says the tribe is hoping to get final approvals for the project, which would include a water park and entertainment venue along with retail development, by the end of the year. He says that would allow them to break ground in time to open in 2021.

That’s just a few years away, and Syverson says that brings a new urgency to getting a casino in Rockford, because of the potential drain on Illinois jobs and revenues.

On the flip side, Syverson sees a Rockford casino as having a number of benefits. He says Senate Bill 7, which he sponsored in the Illinois legislature, would allow casinos for several Illinois cities — including Rockford. That bill passed the Illinois Senate a year ago with bipartisan support.

It hasn’t come up for a vote in the Illinois House; it has been languishing in the House Rules Committee since May 2017. But Syverson thinks it could be good news for the region, and not just from a purely revenue standpoint.

“You’re looking at 200 to 300 hundred good-paying jobs,” he said. “You’re looking at a hotel which will help attract conventions — smaller conventions like Rockford does.”

Syverson says the bill also increases video-parlor payouts for everyone, including non-casino towns. And the state’s share of casino revenues would go into a capital fund — another boost that could help pay for infrastructure projects that Rockford or Winnebago County might have.

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara joins Syverson in hoping SB 7 passes. McNamara says he’s slashed tens of millions of dollars from the city’s budget, even as the state has reduced money it allocates to local government.

But, the mayor says, you can only cut so much to make up a deficit, and video gaming parlors — despite the explosion in their numbers — aren’t going to do the trick. That makes getting a casino more important than ever.

“As proposed, it has a potential to impact us probably between $5 million and $8 million of revenue,” McNamara said. “Right now, we have nearly 500 gaming machines in our city, and we get about $1.4 million of revenue from those. So it would have a tremendous impact.”

McNamara says he realizes some people have moral objections to gambling; but it’s no longer new in Illinois and, in his opinion, people who want to gamble are doing so already.

“They are either gambling illegally, they’re gambling at our slot machines, or they’re leaving our city – and our state, in many areas — to gamble at a casino,” he said. “So my feeling is, might as well have them gamble here in our community.”

Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney says his situation is similar to McNamara’s – trying to cut deficits while the state takes money away. He doesn’t think a casino is a magic bullet for the area’s ills, but he says it’s hard to thumb your nose at a chance for more revenue without added taxation. On balance, he thinks it better to have one in Rockford than not – and even more so if one opens in Beloit.

“I do know that, with a casino, there is [a] downside; not everything is positive,” Haney said. “If a casino were to go [to Beloit], we would not see additional revenue to our community immediately, but we would have some of the social costs. So then there’s no upside but you’d get some of the downside.”

The problem for all three of these politicians is that, right now, it’s all speculation. Syverson believes that a local casino will keep at least a good chunk of money from flowing across the border, but how much?

McNamara’s estimates are just that – estimates. He also says a casino could act as a destination that could entice visitors and draw attention to the city’s other attractions. That might give rise to additional revenue but, again, how much is a guess.

Haney says he doesn’t want to count his chickens before they’re hatched. But he says he has reason to believe a casino could work for the city and the county, whatever happens in Beloit.

“We have a track record of, when there’s an opportunity, seizing it and maximizing it,” he said. “That’s true with sports tourism. That’s true with a number of our cultural offerings. And I have no doubt we could nail it on this as well.”

Syverson worries that further delay in the legislature will diminish the return from a casino if the Beloit resort gets up and running before a Rockford site opens. Haney is more sanguine. The real question for him is — now or later — will it happen?

“Can we get momentum going for a serious discussion around the casino?” he asked. “Or will they punt to the other side of the election? I don’t know that information. But I think, either way, you have multiple local entities working with our state delegation to prompt or to push or advance that discussion, and I’m hopeful.”

One point where everyone agrees is that anything that helps with the bottom line is a good thing. A casino — even one competing with another down the road — fills the bill.

So, two decades after it was first proposed — and despite the question marks — they all are still willing to gamble on a Rockford casino.

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