Regulators pick casino developers for Waukegan, south suburbs

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Illinois Gaming Board chairman Charles Schmadeke, pictured at an August 2019 board meeting.
Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Charles Schmadeke | Sun-Times file

State regulators rejected bids from Matteson, as well as a Waukegan proposal from a former state senator who poured thousands of dollars into local elections.

Two of the most important cards in Illinois’ massive gambling expansion have finally been dealt.

State regulators on Wednesday named their chosen developers to break ground on a new casino in Waukegan and another straddling the border of south suburban Homewood and East Hazel Crest, ending a selection process that dragged on for more than two years due to COVID-19 shutdowns and other delays.

While the location of the north suburban gambling emporium was never in doubt, the Illinois Gaming Board picked Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts Inc. to set up its high-stakes shop at the shuttered Fountain Square shopping center in Waukegan — though a legal challenge from a spurned competitor could still be looming.

The field was much wider for the south suburban casino license. The state gambling law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019 that paved the way for the new casinos pitted a handful of suburbs against each other to bid for what is expected to be a cash cow for south suburban communities that have been economically neglected for generations.

Homewood/East Hazel Crest beat out Matteson with a proposal to build the casino just off Interstate 80 near 175th and Halsted streets. Calumet City and Lynwood were culled from the bidding process in October.

Regulators voted 4-0 to grant findings of “preliminary suitability” for the Waukegan and Homewood/East Hazel Crest bidders. That means they can start laying the groundwork for the casinos, which have been coveted by officials in each of the suburbs for decades.

The Homewood-East Hazel Crest bid is led by Alabama-based Wind Creek Hospitality, part of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which runs 10 gambling operations in Alabama, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and the Caribbean island of Curacao. Project partners have promised a $440 million, 64,000-square-foot casino along with a 21-story hotel and an entertainment center.

Artist’s rendering of a casino proposed by Wind Creek Hospitality just off Interstate 80 near 175th Street and Halsted, straddling the border of suburban Homewood and East Hazel Crest.
Provided by Wind Creek Hospitality
A rendering of a casino proposed by Wind Creek Hospitality just off Interstate 80 near 175th and Halsted streets, straddling the border of Homewood and East Hazel Crest.

The group is represented by former gaming board general counsel Donna More, who also launched a failed bid to unseat Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in the 2020 Democratic primary election.

The bid from Full House Resorts, a publicly traded company, is behind the $400 million “American Place” Waukegan proposal, which envisions a high-end gambling temple catering to high-rollers — complete with “ultra-luxurious” villas and a helicopter landing pad “to expedite travel time for hotel guests seeking to bypass traffic.”

A rendering of the proposed “American Place” casino in Waukegan.
Provided by Full House Resorts
A rendering of the proposed “American Place” casino in Waukegan.

The Gaming Board had been poised to issue the Waukegan license last month but delayed its decision “out of respect for the judicial process” in a federal lawsuit filed by a foiled bidder.

The Forest County Potawatomi Community sued Waukegan in 2019 after the city voted to eliminate its proposal even though the Wisconsin tribe scored well on the evaluation system. The Potawatomi claimed the process was “rigged” to favor a bid backed by former state Sen. Michael Bond, who poured thousands of dollars into local elections and whose “North Point” casino proposal was rejected by regulators.

The Potawatomi filed for a temporary restraining order to prevent the Gaming Board from moving ahead with its selection until the lawsuit was resolved. Cook County Judge Cecilia Horan turned down the request Tuesday, saying the tribe didn’t have legal standing to hold up the selection.

“The casino is not going to open tomorrow. There are still many, many steps before anyone opens a casino in Waukegan,” Horan said during a virtual hearing.

The selections come two and a half years after Pritzker signed the gambling law that created six new casino licenses, introduced legal sports betting, allowed for slots and table games at racetracks and expanded the number of gambling terminals allowed at gas stations, truck stops, bars and other lounges. The coronavirus put a crimp on the expansion, which has rolled out in fits and starts under the chronically understaffed and overworked Gaming Board.

Of the six casinos, only the Hard Rock in Rockford has started taking bets. Ground was to be broken Wednesday on a new casino in downstate Williamson County. Danville’s revised casino bid is still being reviewed by regulators after an initial proposal fell through.

The most important piece of the gambling expansion — the Chicago mega-casino — is still early in the local selection process. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office has scheduled public presentations from the five proposals for that license Dec. 16.

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December 8, 2021 at 12:04PM

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