By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – A large crowd heard three applicants present their respective proposals to build a casino in Rockford during a public hearing Monday at the Coronado Performing Arts Center.
Two presentations were for east-side casinos, the other for a downtown facility that would include an aquarium along the Rock River.
Forest City Partners
While the casino would be the main attraction of Forest City Partners’ development, the investment group also wants to also use a 136-acre parcel just south of the new Javon Bea Hospital for a family attraction that features a temporary casino, golf-entertainment center, restaurants, senior-living facility, two water parks, and two hotels. One would a 250-room Wyndham. The other would be run by a private operator. It would adjoin the casino with 150 rooms.
“We have an opportunity on this site to do something more–something great for the city,” said Tom LaSalle, of LaSalle Development Group, whose company has been developing casinos and resorts since the ’80s.
LaSalle said he initially tabbed the site for commercial, residential and retail but switched gears when he learned Rockford is part of Illinois’ most recent gaming expansion plans.
“It gives us an opportunity to go beyond a casino to create an environment that is family entertainment combined with adult entertainment,” he said. “We can separate those on the same site so you can have your family in a safe environment away from the casino.”
The estimated cost of the Forest City project is $250 million.
Hard Rock International
Beginning its presentation with the guitar sounds of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, accompanied by drummer Daxx Nielsen, Hard Rock International repeated its desire to build a Hard Rock Casino at the site of the former Clock Tower Resort, adjacent to the East State Street Interstate 90 entrance.
Phase 1 would include the main casino, several restaurants, including Hard Rock Cafe; the Rock Shop that involves Rick Nielsen’s wife, Karen, and Hard Rock Live!, a 1,600-seat music venue and event center.
The East State Street casino would offer 1,500 slot machines and 55 gambling tables. A temporary casino with 736 slot machines would be housed inside Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center for 18-24 months while the permanent facility is built.
Phase 2 of the $310 million project would add a hotel and parking deck.
If selected, Hard Rock has committed to support numerous community projects, most notably needs of the cash-strapped Rockford Park District. The gaming company would help fund the amphitheater at Levings Park, neighborhood youth programs, expansion of Washington Park Community Center and enhancements at the Sinnissippi Park Music Shell.
Hard Rock also says it will it financially support Rockford Area Venues and Entertainment Authority (RAVE), Rockford Police, Rockford Fire, Remedies Renewing Lives and the city’s Family Peace Center.
The Hard Rock investment group includes Ringland-Johnson Construction CEO Brent Johnson and Dan Fischer, President of 605 Holdings. The group purchased the 21-acre Clock Tower property for $3.6 million in 2017.
Rock River West Casino Group (Gorman & Co.)
While it did not identify an operator, a group led by Wisconsin developer Gorman & Co. is proposing an urban casino in a 250,000 square-foot existing North Main Street building, just south of the under-construction Embassy Suites & Rockford Convention Center. It would offer 1,200 slot machines and 200 table gaming seats, Rock & Brews Family Restaurant, 60-room hotel addition and an aquarium.
Former Rockford Housing Authority CEO, Illinois Market President Ron Clewer said that although it would generate slightly less revenue than an east-side facility, a downtown casino would anchor a growing entertainment district that includes City Market, UW Health Sports Factory and several bars and restaurants that were not downtown a decade ago. The east side has changed too, he said. Gone are many of the retail stores and restaurants that saw their heydays when things moved east. As a result, he says the demand for a development like a casino is greater downtown.
“Downtown was a different place 10 to 12 years ago,” Clewer said. “The east side was a different place 10 to 12 years ago. Real estate development was a different opportunity 10 to 12 years ago in the city of Rockford. We need to think about all that has changed in the last 10 years and how casinos can be used for an economic driver in the city of Rockford, in our downtown.”
The Gorman says its temporary casino could be open by 2022. The permanent facility would be up and running two years after that. The company projects that the temporary location will generate a total of around $184 million in two years. The permanent facility would bring in $147.2 million in its first year, $166.9 million in the second year and $171.7 million by 2025.
A Rockford casino could add nearly 1,600 jobs to the area. Each company says they range from entry-level to management and supervisory positions. Hard Rock and Forest City say they would offer shuttle transportation to employees who live in other parts of the city.
Although the city did not include casino revenue in its 2020 budget, the new facility could yield between $4 million and $8 million in annual tax revenue. Rockford would keep 70% of those dollars and share 20 percent with Winnebago County, 5% with Loves Park and 5% with Machesney Park.
The county and Machesney Park have already thrown support to a casino along I-90. How the municipalities spend those funds will be up to elected officials.
The city is wrapping up its review of each proposal and is expected to send a recommendation to aldermen in time from Monday’s City Council meeting. Rockford has until Oct. 25 to send one or more proposals to the Illinois Gaming Board. The state’s review process will take about nine months.