The city of Rockford is preparing for a new casino after state lawmakers approved a gambling expansion package during the final hours of a legislative session that went into overtime.
Rockford was one of six locations included in legislation recently approved by lawmakers and awaiting action by the governor. Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said the bill was the culmination of years of work.
“We were the most aggressive we have ever been in lobbying for a casino,” McNamara said. “I came down to Springfield a host of times to fight for a casino. We took out a host of ads … and did an aggressive social media campaign to the elected leaders down in Springfield. When you add up those things, it led to being successful.”
McNamara also credited increased local support and a team mentality among regional lawmakers. He pointed to a change in the Governor’s Mansion as a key to getting the measure across the goal line.
“We have a guy named J.B. Pritzker who actually understands and wants to partner with municipalities and he is a game-changer when it comes to that,” McNamara said.
State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, has been advocating for a Rockford casino license for years. He said he has heard concerns about a saturated gambling market in Illinois, but said that even if true, there’s no risk to taxpayers.
“These are all investments being made by the private sector,” Syverson said. “They’re taking the risk. They’re building these casinos. If it doesn’t work, they’re the ones who are out, not the taxpayers.”
The city of Rockford estimated up to 600 union construction jobs would be needed to build a casino. The casino would create about 1,000 permanent jobs and between $4 million and $8 million in local revenue for the city.
“Not that I’m a huge gambling person, but we have five states that are building casinos on our borders, and last year more than $1.5-billion left Illinois and went to those states,” Syverson said. “People gamble and have dinner. That’s a lot of money and jobs out Illinois that should be here.”
Rockford leaders pushed hard for the gambling expansion bill, in part because of a mega-casino being planned just north of the Wisconsin border in Beloit. That project continues to move forward, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently released the final Environmental Impact Statement for the development.
“The fact that Rockford finally got ours done first, now we have standing. We can object to what Beloit is doing and potentially slow them down,” Syverson said. “Ultimately [Beloit] has to be approved by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. We’ll see what the feds do with that.”
McNamara said the city already is exploring plans for a temporary casino location while a permanent facility is built.
“We’re kind of the last defenders of the state of Illinois when it comes to keeping revenue in the state,” McNamara said. “On behalf of the citizens of Rockford as well as the entire state of Illinois, we’re going to move as quickly as possible and try to disrupt that [Beloit] process.”