Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Hard Rock announce casino pitch

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD – The investment group that includes Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, along with the chairman of Hard Rock International, on Tuesday announced its intention to submit a proposal to the city to build a casino at 7801 E. State St., adjacent to the Interstate 90 entrance. 

More than 100 people were on hand at the former Clock Tower Resort site as Nielsen, who talked about bringing a rock ‘n’ roll-themed venue to Rockford 12 years ago, said a casino would be his local legacy. 

“If the city and state pass this, this is going to be a great destination,” Nielsen told the crowd, which included nearly 20 members of his family. “Instead of people just driving by, they are going to stop in. I can’t wait. I’ve been to over half the Hard Rocks around the world and there’s a guitar (of mine) in almost every one. But I have nothing here.”

Hard Rock Chairman and CEO Jim Allen said while the cost of the project won’t be announced until the group submits a response to the city’s request for proposal (RFP), what he has in mind could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.” It would create more than 1,000 construction jobs and 1,200 permanent positions, he said. 

“This opportunity here in Rockford is something that is very important to Hard Rock,” Allen said. “These are the types of projects we see that become part of the future of the brand itself. And that brand continues to expand.”

The first Hard Rock Cafe opened on June 14, 1971, in Mayfair, London. Today, the company has 186 venues in 74 countries, including 186 cafes, 241 Rock Shops, 29 hotels and a dozen casinos. Since 2007, the company has been a private subsidiary of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, its majority owner.

Allen said a Rockford casino would be built by the local workforce.

“That is something that is very important to us,” he said. “There could be some company that isn’t local, but the general mindset is to work with all local contractors and subcontractors and local labor. We give preference to local residents.”

While some consider the Clock Tower site a logical choice for a gaming facility, city officials have not reviewed any proposals and will not do so until after the RFP deadline. 

“We are happy to see community excitement around a casino in Rockford,” the city said in a statement released last Friday, when Tuesday’s invitation-only event was announced. “However, we want to be clear that a recently announced press conference is not to be interpreted in any way as the city endorsing any location or any proposal. At this time, there is no site selected. In fact, the city has not yet received any proposals. We expect to receive multiple proposals for multiple sites by the Aug. 16 deadline and will consider each of them.”

The selection process will include input from a team of consultants and a vote by Rockford aldermen.

Allen said he is confident his billion-dollar company with the world’s largest collection of music memorabilia will be awarded the project. 

“Our record is extremely strong in that category,” he said.

Ringland-Johnson Construction CEO Brent Johnson is also part of the group of local investors who purchased the 21-acre Clock Tower property for $3.6 million in 2017. In 2007, he and Nielsen were in talks to build “Rick’s Place” a hotel, guitar museum and music venue near I- 90 and Riverside Boulevard. Those plans were halted when the economy tanked.

“The Great Recession hit us,” Johnson said. “It gave us a little speed bump.” 

The city has until Oct. 25 to submit one or more aldermen-approved proposals to the Illinois Gaming Board, which will make the final decision about who gets the city’s lone casino license. Depending on who is awarded that license, a temporary casino could be up and running by the end of the year or early 2020.

Allen said a temporary location is something Hard Rock would be interested in discussing and that the first phase of a permanent facility could be completed in 12-14 months.

A Rockford casino is expected to yield between $6 million and $8 million in annual revenue. The city would share those dollars with Winnebago County, Loves Park and Machesney Park.  

A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 23. A location has not been announced.

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