When state senators put together a framework to end Illinois’ two-year budget stalemate, they turned to a familiar strategy to generate more income — gambling.
The “grand bargain” Illinois Senate leaders promise a vote on this week includes six new casino licenses, slot machines for horse-racing tracks and more gaming positions at existing casinos.
“If they’re looking at Danville and the Chicago area, why not Springfield?” Theilen said. “It’s not a stretch to say that we could put something here.”
Under the legislation being considered, new casinos are planned for Chicago, the south suburbs of Chicago, Lake and Williamson counties, Rockford and Danville.
But as Rockford and Danville officials can attest, it takes years of lobbying to get gaming licenses through the Illinois legislature.
Plus, any attempts at gambling expansion have met opposition from established casinos and video-gaming operators, as well as gambling opponents. Casinos and game operators argue that Illinois’ gaming market already is saturated and any expansion will just move revenue around, not create additional income.
Still, the promise of construction jobs to build a casino, permanent work for potentially hundreds of residents and millions of dollars in taxes make a casino in Springfield an option worth pursuing, Theilen said.
Though a local license wouldn’t make it in this round of expansion, Theilen said he’d like to start the conversation.
The idea has been discussed before. A proposal for a riverboat casino in Riverside Park emerged in the early 1990s when the state first started issuing licenses.
Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath was on the Springfield City Council at the time and said he was supportive. Now, he sees it a little differently. He said he’d be in favor of putting a casino at the Illinois State Fairgrounds that would produce money to keep up with repairs and maintenance of the buildings and grounds.
“It’d still be an economic benefit for the city of Springfield,” he said, with casino customers staying in hotels and eating at restaurants.
Mayor Jim Langfelder said he’d be open to looking at gambling at the fairgrounds or a casino to anchor downtown or the underdeveloped Legacy Pointe. But he hasn’t had any conversations with state lawmakers or other officials about the idea.
He also worries about what it would do to the existing video-gaming market.
“What I’ve gathered from restaurants and bars is that video gaming has helped them through tough times,” Langfelder said. “That’s something we have to take into consideration.”
“I do think it reaches a saturation point where if you have too many places and spots, it’s redistributing the folks that go to these places for entertainment,” she said. “I think that has to be part of the discussion.”
Lobbyists for the state’s 10 casinos and video-gaming advocates have argued for years that Illinois has reached a saturation point, citing declining revenues and tax contributions from casinos.
Casino revenue is down 27 percent from 10 years ago, falling from $2 billion in 2007 to $1.4 billion in 2016, according to the state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s annual gambling report. It offers several reasons for this.
“Over the past several years, numerous factors have influenced the performance of Illinois riverboats, including the indoor smoking ban, the tumultuous economy, the opening of the casino in Des Plaines, and the introduction of video gaming,” the report says.
Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, agrees that gaming in Illinois has reached its limit. With the number of gaming terminals in Springfield, she said it’s almost as if the city already has a casino.
Springfield is No. 1 in the state for video gaming with its more than 600 terminals and $29 million in net income in fiscal year 2016, according to the state commission’s report.
Rockford is second, with 453 terminals and $27.9 million in income.
Part of the reason the two cities lead the state is because neither has a casino, said Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association president Michael Galatka. And construction of one would cost the gaming operators.
“It’s another option for your entertainment dollar, and one that overlaps with ours,” Galatka said.
Chris Stone owns a chain of gaming parlors throughout the state, with 10 locations in the Springfield area. He agreed that a new place to gamble would have some negative effect on video gaming, but questions how much.
With that in mind, he argued that expanding video gaming in its current form would bring in more money for state and local governments than additional casinos would. Upping the minimum bet from $1 to $2 per machine and increasing the jackpot players could win would attract more players and dollars to video gaming, he said.
Expansion bills frequently get caught in the quagmire of competing gaming interests. Numerous attempts have been made in the past decade to build more, and bigger, casinos, with little success.
Two bills made it to then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk, only to be vetoed. State lawmakers have since discussed a couple of similar proposals to the six additional casinos and slot machines for racetracks on the table now, but none have been passed.
State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, has pushed for years for a casino in his hometown.
The central argument has been that it would draw both Illinois residents who might now be traveling across the state lines to gamble and Wisconsin residents.
“Last year, $1.6 billion left Illinois and went to just the surrounding five states in gaming,” Syverson said. “The argument that we always made is that the locations are ones that weren’t near other casinos.”
“If it was a year from now, and Springfield was … making the case there’s need, then the reality is how do you build consensus for 30 senators to vote for another competing casino in Illinois?” Syverson said. “That would be a tougher battle.”
To garner the needed votes, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer’s pitch since 2005 has been that a bill granting additional casino licenses is not a gaming bill, but an economic development package for his city.
“We know the governor and legislators have been saying, ‘What do we do to make Illinois a business-growing state?’ This is one way to get that done,” he said.
According to a market study, Eisenhauer said, Danville could see 600 construction jobs, 800 permanent jobs and $30 million in annual wages from a casino.
Those are the kind of numbers that Theilen said make exploring the option worth it for Springfield. But the city would need a strong development partner to make it happen, he said.
“My advice is that if you decide that you are going to get into the game, be patient because it is a game of chance where odds are not necessarily in our favor,” he said.
— Contact Mary Hansen: 788-1528, email@example.com, twitter.com/maryfhansen.