Casino chasing Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch had changed his mind about the business — saying it preys on the poor and doesn’t spur development — but he didn’t hesitate when it was clear he might finally get one.
After hearing major casino legislation was likely to win approval in Springfield last weekend, Welch said he immediately called a major developer in the suburb to take the town’s failed casino pitch off the shelf.
“We will be fighting for it,” Welch said as Gov. Pat Quinn debated whether to sign the legislation.
Welch’s reversal shows just how strong the allure of a casino can be for a mayor — the prospect of millions of dollars in tax revenue, gleaming new buildings and hundreds of jobs. The draw can often overcome concerns about the impact of compulsive gambling.
With Quinn still debating whether to sign off on essentially doublingÖ the number of gambling palaces in Illinois, the race is already on to land a casino license earmarked for southern Cook County. So far, it appears Country Club Hills and Ford Heights are angling for frontrunner status.
The measure approved by lawmakers Tuesday adds slot machines at racetracks and puts casinos in Chicago, Rockford, far north suburban Park City and downstate Danville. But It leaves the south suburbs fighting over the last license.
Dozens of towns spanning six townships — from Calumet City to Chicago Ridge — are allowed to make a pitch to the Illinois Gaming BoardÖ, which has the final say.
It will take months for the final list of contenders to shake out.
Already one prominent suburb has teased the idea only to quickly do an about-face. Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki had recently told another newspaper his town wasn’t ruling the idea out, but he told the Tribune this morning he is not interested.
“It’s the chronic gambling that’s going to cause a problem in the long run, and I really don’t see that for our community,” he said. “I’m not sure we want to deal with everything that a casino can bring in.”
The Ford Heights plan would put a casino off Illinois Highway 394 at U.S. Route 30, near the Indiana border countless Illinoisans cross to gamble.
Mayor Charles Griffin says his town should have an edge because of the area’s high poverty. The suburb is so poor that Cook County sheriffs have to provide its police coverage. Griffin is planning a revenue sharing deal with other struggling towns.
“All of us are in the same situation — we don’t have any industry,” Griffin said
Welch, now making his third run at a casino, is pitching his site as a “destination.” It will sit near a planned outlet mall off Interstates 57 and 80.
Welch said he would prefer the state focus its energy on bringing more jobs by building a third airport in Peotone. But, he said, if a casino is in the mix he is going to pursue it because “it’s the only game in town.”
Certainly, many towns are desperate for extra tax money to stem layoffs and tax hikes.
The take would likely be less than towns get from existing casinos today given the increased competition on the horizon. But the state’s nine operating casinos paid a combined $82.6 million to local communities last year. Aurora takes in more than $10 million a year from its casino.
Under the law, a developer’s bid first will have to be approved by the host suburb, giving local officials a strong hand in deciding the location and ancillary development, like hotels and restaurants.
Then those bids go to the governor-appointed gaming board.
Casino regulators are supposed to weigh factors that include potential state revenue, community support, minority ownership and the character and experience of the bidders. Regulators will have to issue a license within a year of the legislation becoming law.
Tribune reporter Andy Grimm contributed.