Slow play? Gaming board seeks final bids for Waukegan, south suburban casinos next month — so it can decide early next year

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Players play three card poker at the Majestic Star Casino in Gary in 2004. Casino developers will make their final pitches next month for licenses in Waukegan and Chicago’s south suburbs
Players play three card poker at the Majestic Star Casino in Gary, Ind., in 2004. Casino developers will make their final pitches next month for licenses in Waukegan and Chicago’s south suburbs. | Jean Lachat/Sun-Times file

The winning bidders could receive initial approvals in January, about two and a half years after the new casino licenses were created — “a snail’s pace,” one state legislator said.

Bidders for two new suburban casinos will get one last chance to put their best hands together next month in hopes of landing the lucrative, long-sought gambling licenses.

More than two years after casinos were authorized for Waukegan and the south suburbs as part of a sprawling gaming expansion, state regulators on Thursday laid out the clearest timeline yet for issuing those coveted licenses.

Four applicants for the south suburban license and three for Waukegan will make public presentations of their proposals at a special Oct. 13 meeting of the Illinois Gaming Board, which could give initial approvals to the winning projects by mid-January.

Gaming Board Administrator Marcus Fruchter said the presentations will help in “narrowing the field down to three finalists” for the south suburban gambling house, as required under the Illinois gambling law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June of 2019.

The Waukegan field is already down to three bidders, but those developers will also have a chance to “​​explain why each would be suitable for licensure,” Fruchter said during a board meeting Thursday.

The eventual six total finalists will then make their “best and final offers” for the licenses in a competitive bidding process, according to Fruchter. Winners could get the early green light to start breaking ground by the second week of January.

That’ll mark two and a half years since Pritzker’s signature created the suburban licenses in a package that promises to nearly double the number of places to bet across the state.

“I understand COVID made delays, but that’s an awfully slow process. That’s a snail’s pace,” said state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, a Chicago Heights Democrat who wrote a letter to Pritzker last month calling on him to “spur IGB into action.” The letter was also signed by Blue Island state Rep. Bob Rita, who shepherds all gaming legislation in Springfield.

State Rep. Bob Rita (right) chats with Marcus Fruchter, administrator of the Illinois Gaming Board, during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook in Des Plaines in March 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
State Rep. Bob Rita (right) chats with Marcus Fruchter, administrator of the Illinois Gaming Board, during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook in Des Plaines in March 2020.

“It’s disappointing that the fact we have a date in October — still more than a month away — is exciting progress. At least now we have substantive information showing that the process is moving along,” DeLuca said.

Fruchter, who has blamed the pandemic for the licensing delays, said the Gaming Board is doing its best to pick winners “in an ethical, expeditious, transparent, independent and thorough manner.”

At the same time, his perennially understaffed agency has also been tasked with vetting other new casino applicants while also policing an expansion in video gaming and building the framework of Illinois’ entirely new legal sports betting industry from the ground up.

Pritzker, who is counting on the new gambling tax revenue to help fund an ambitious $45 billion capital infrastructure plan, has stayed out of the fray.

The suburban applications were delayed further earlier this year as the Gaming Board struggled to find a consultant to handle the bidding process.

Guests play roulette at Excalibur Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas last year. Casino developers will make their final pitches next month for licenses in Waukegan and Chicago’s south suburbs.
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Guests play roulette at Excalibur Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas last year. Casino developers will make their final pitches next month for licenses in Waukegan and Chicago’s south suburbs.

The agency has already given preliminary approvals to new casinos in Rockford and downstate Williamson County, as well as at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and at the Fairmount Park racetrack near East St. Louis. None of those selections had to go through competitive bidding.

But the Waukegan and south suburban processes are still well ahead of the crown jewel of the 2019 gaming expansion: the newly authorized Chicago mega-casino. After a tepid response from major casino corporations, Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed back the city’s application deadline to Oct. 29. It’ll be months before the city picks a developer, let alone advances a proposal to the Gaming Board.

Yet another new casino is in the pipeline in Danville, but they’re behind schedule too, with a new application following an initial bid that fell apart last year.

The Waukegan applicants include a group led by billionaire Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming, which already runs the state’s biggest existing gambling cash cow, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Bluhm is also weighing a bid for the Chicago casino.

His Waukegan proposal is up against bids from Las Vegas-based developer Full House Resorts and Lakeside Casino LLC, a company led by former Grayslake state Sen. Michael Bond, who already has his own video gaming company.

The four south suburban proposals, each backed by their respective suburban host, come from Calumet City, Lynwood, Matteson and a site that straddles the border of Homewood and East Hazel Crest.

“This will create jobs and economic opportunity for families,” said DeLuca, who added that he doesn’t have a horse in the race. “That’s what this is about. Not creating new gamblers, but getting people who are spending $100 right across the border in Indiana to stimulate the economy here, where it’s needed so badly.”

The special Gaming Board meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 13 and will be open to the public. It’s not yet known if the meeting will be held in person or streamed online, as has been the case for most of the pandemic.

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September 9, 2021 at 04:18PM

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