There should be better times for Chicago casinos

Dec 18, 2012 3:09 AM

I can imagine it now: Las Vegas resort executives rummaging through desk drawers and closets, probably frowning, wondering where they put those Chicago casino plans.

They were around here somewhere, just a couple of years ago. That’s what they might be saying…something like that. Companies of all sizes seemed to have Chicago plans, ideas that never got beyond drawing boards and legislative hearings.

But Illinois and Chicago, that city of the “big shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg wrote, is suddenly pushing its way toward center stage, giving planners another possibility to ponder. As though the Pacific Rim, assorted East Coast U.S. ventures and maybe Florida and Texas were not enough to keep the big thinkers busy imagining where they might do some capital spending.

Illinois gaming expansion has been trotted out for discussion almost annually over a couple of decades but the discussions were generally punctuated with rhetoric like “over my dead body” and gestures that seemed to say I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it.

Yes, casino riverboats were legal but the prevailing attitude and frowns found in Springfield and various sections of the state did not always project a welcome-to-Illinois feel.

“I feel like I’m doing business behind enemy lines,” is the way a senior resort executive put it to me several years ago.

Remember that big idea from 1992? The companies that used to be Hilton, Circus Circus and Caesars were going to cooperate in the creation of a downtown Chicago venture with some 10,000 rooms. It quickly fell victim to interests that pulled the concept apart.

The times are finally changing some 20 years later…apparently.

Four gaming company executives with a good view of the Illinois political landscape confirm what news stories have been suggesting during recent days: an agreement is close at hand to give Chicago the casino Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been working for. It is a plan Gov. Pat Quinn will, perhaps grudgingly, accept; so I am told.

“I really feel like it is close to happening,” a source close to the heart of this issue told me several days ago, adding, “but don’t put my name on that.”

A second source agreed, “The mayor and Quinn appear to have reached an accord,” an agreement that will avoid the nastiness associated with the veto-proof majority in both houses of the legislature cramming a bill down the governor’s throat or, uh, up another area of his anatomy.

Illinois’ coin-operated gaming industry, which is busy putting video poker games at some 12,000 locations around the state, 3,000 of them in the Chicago area, likes the idea of this expansion because it is expected to lead to an eventual loosening of restrictions that permit no more than five games where there is a license to pour alcohol.

MGM CEO Jim Murren’s argument that his company should not dump its half-owned Elgin riverboat and exit the Chicago market may look like a smart move if the plan comes together during the first several months of next year as it is expected to.

MGM got the Elgin project when it bought Mandalay Resorts in 2005. The hard-nosed adversarial attitude of Illinois licensing officials had top MGM execs wondering whether the state was worth the time and energy that might be required for a license.

But Murren argued he could not imagine walking away from a market like Chicago. Better times would come eventually, he argued, so I am told.

It appears now those better times may be just a few months away and MGM Senior VP Alan Feldman confirms MGM Resorts will be very interested in taking advantage of whatever opportunities come with an easing of current restrictions.

Caesars Entertainment has the same attitude. Caesars now operates the casino closest to what is considered downtown Chicago. That’s the Hammond Horseshoe in Indiana, about 20 minutes away from the Loop.

Major casino company officials have privately and publicly roasted the Illinois legislative process during recent years, condemning the uncertainty associated with trying to operate legal casinos that some influential interests treated with suspicion and dark frowns rather than acceptance.

But casino resorts generate lots of jobs and tax revenues, powerful arguments during times like these.

Expanded gambling in Illinois that features a major casino resort in the downtown Chicago area – whoever runs it – will also be a powerful catalyst for change in other states.

Phil Hevener has been writing about the Nevada gaming business for more than 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

 GamingToday on Facebook      and         GamingToday on Twitter