By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker was in Rockford Monday and said he will “do everything possible” to help Rockford “beat Beloit,” meaning get a casino off the ground as quickly as possible, to get a leg up on the facility planned just north of the Illinois border.
The goal, Pritzker said, is to be first to start attracting casino-goers from Wisconsin.
“Gaming will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue annually from all across the state when this is fully implemented,” Pritzker said. “For years, bills have been drafted and debates have been had. But it never got across the finish line. This year, Republicans joined Democrats in a bipartisan effort.”
State Sen. Dave Syverson was one of those Republicans, a stalwart for a Rockford casino for more than a decade.
“We saw the concern back then about other states building casinos intentionally on the border to come after Illinois residents – Illinois tourism dollars,” Syverson said. “We saw that problem, so we started working together years ago in building a coalition and building a piece of legislation that made sense.”
In 2018, Illinois lost about $1.5 billion in gaming dollars to states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana.
“There’s no hiding. We’ve had huge deficits for years and years and years,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said. “This revenue comes at the perfect time.”
McNamara unveiled the Rockford casino timeline last Friday, the day Pritzker signed the gaming expansion bill. The signing gave Rockford 120 days to submit a casino application to the Illinois Gaming Board. If that application is approved, a casino could open at a temporary site by the end of the year.
What’s exactly in the application will depend on the responses to an RFP (Request of Proposal) the city hopes to issue this week.
“We have been working on that for 2 1/2 (or) three weeks,” McNamara said. “We are moving rapidly. Not many people have ever created an RFP like this.”
The mayor said before an proposal is sent to the state, it must meet certain criteria. There must be a good-faith negotiation, and city and applicant must agree on casino locations and a revenue sharing plan. They must also agree on zoning and public health requirements. All the conditions must be approved by City Council.
McNamara said a permanent casino would likely take two years to build and “multiple entities” have already expressed interest. Where the facility would be built, however, is not yet part of the discussion.
“It’s something that’s going to go through an open and transparent request for proposal process,” he said. “Everything is up for debate. Everything is up for negotiation, and we are open to anything at this point.”
A Rockford could casino could add nearly 1,600 jobs to the area and yield between $6 million and $8 million in annual revenue. The city would share that revenue with Winnebago County, Loves Park and Machesney Park.
State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, and Illinois Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, also worked on the casino bill.