Chicago melodramaneeds casino relief

May 27, 2003 4:04 AM

It’s like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, without the bodies.

It’s called The Tenth License, and it is Chicago’s longest running front page story, with all the elements of Chicago drama: big money, clout, tricky politics and politicians, influence, talk of the mob, Las Vegas and The Law.

Like the St. Valentine’s Day deal, a garage plays a role. No sex is involved, so it won’t make a movie or TV unless producers add some gratuitously, which they have been known to do from time to time. Even without sex this thing, like the Mississippi river where it all started, just keeps rollin’ along.

It’s the Emerald Casino, never built and now physically an ugly steel skeleton, but financially is an even bigger mess. The story simply will not go away, and may wind up playing longer than Cats. It’s now in its fourth year ”” 11 if you go back to the real roots ”” and still packing them in. At one point billionaire Marvin Davis and Arlington Park track owner Dick Duchossois were in the cast, but they’re long gone and now its just about money. Big money. Big enough that MGM Mirage jumped into the show at one point with an offer of $615 million, and that wasn’t enough to bring the matter to conclusion.

What happened, in simplified form, is that a group that became known as Emerald got one of the four original Mississippi riverboat licenses issued in 1992, this one operating out of East Dubuque, Illinois. By July 1997, competition on the river proved too great, and Emerald closed its riverboat. A month before it closed, however, it applied for a renewal of the license, asking to relocate its operation to Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago hard by O’Hare airport, essentially in Chicago, or as close as you can get. The Illinois Gaming Board said no. The matter went to court. Six years later, it still is in hot dispute, and unresolved.

When Emerald asked for a license in Rosemont, the gleaming lights of Chicago and its teeming millions began shining straight into the eyes of a considerable number of wealthy people with political clout in the city, and they quickly ponied up some $49 million to get in on the act. The ringleaders, who put in far more, were a wealthy and well-placed father-son team named Donald and Kevin Flynn and the mayor of the town of Rosemont, one Donald Stephens.

Along the way the gaming board became disenchanted with what they considered a lack of veracity and prudence on the part of the Flynns and deemed them unsuited to hold the license. Lake County, to Chicago’s north, got in the act and wanted Emerald’s license transferred there. A court said no.

The constitutionality of the move was challenged, unsuccessfully. Emerald lost its license, which was ordered sold, but the Flynns and the investors in the project wanted their money back, and part of the profits. That was ruled out. It was suggested the state take over the license, sell it, and reimburse the investors for what they had invested, but no more. Donald Stephens wants Rosemont reimbursed at least $45 million for the parking garage it had built, and another six million to tear down the steel skeleton Emerald started prematurely before it had official approval, in case the casino is moved elsewhere. Stephens wants the state to add an eleventh casino license so Rosemont can still have the casino, and so Dick Daley can have the tenth in downtown Chicago.

That’s a skeleton outline, like the rusting skeleton in Rosemont. The issue has become so deeply immersed in legal and administrative entanglements that it is serialized, with new weekly chapters involving the Illinois Gaming Board, Emerald, Rosemont and a bankruptcy court.

The new Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced last week there would be no eleventh casino and no slots for tracks, which had been part of a proposed legislative package. He did not say he had any great problem with The Tenth Casino winding up in Chicago, an idea that mayor Dick Daley finds attractive.

That could be the final act of this dragged-out drama, and if it is the long-struggling play will wind up a roaring, smash hit.