Gaming initiatives abound throughout the MidwestUsually when the words "gaming hot spot" are uttered, most people envision Las Vegas, California, Atlantic City or perhaps Mississippi. But so far this year, the area of the country that has experienced the largest increase in the number of gaming projects and initiatives appears to be the normally quiet Midwest.
Over the past month, attempts to expand gaming through new casino construction or the development of racinos have cropped up in Illinois, Missouri and Indiana.
In Illinois, the state's currently vacant 10th casino license continues to generate interest and proposals. Harrah's Entertainment officially entered the fray with its pitch to build a casino facility as part of a proposed $1.2 billion redevelopment of Waukegan's waterfront district. The complex would be housed in an abandoned shopping center and feature a gaming and entertainment complex and a 300-room hotel. The proposal emphasized job creation-an important selling point in Waukegan, which has lost an estimated 30,000 jobs over the past 30 years and suffers from an 8.4 percent unemployment rate.
The proponents of this bid also played up the community's location in the casino-free northwestern part of the state as a potential advantage. "A Waukegan casino will generate new gaming tax revenues by reaching untapped opportunities in northern Illinois and Wisconsin outside of the cluster of Chicagoland casinos that already compete for metropolitan Chicago customers," said Fred Keeton, regional vice president for Harrah's.
The Harrah's proposal is competing with at least three others backed respectively by Caesars Entertainment, Isle of Capri and Steve Wynn. The Illinois Gaming Board is expected to announce the winning bid for the license by the middle of this month.
Illinois is not the only Midwest jurisdiction with plans to expand casino gaming. Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment received the green light to build a new casino in downtown St. Louis after a special committee of the St. Louis Development Corp. gave them the OK.
The decision allows Pinnacle to move forward with plans to build a $250 million casino with 2,000 slots, a 200-room hotel, parking garage and a 22-story condominium tower. The project would still have to be approved by the St. Louis County Commission and the Missouri Gaming Commission, which, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, intends to consider a much wider array of casino proposals.
If Pinnacle's bid were selected, it would put a halt to Isle of Capri Casinos' plans to buy the financially beleaguered President Casino on the Admiral out of bankruptcy and redevelop it. The committee chose the Pinnacle bid because of its larger initial investment and ability to create more jobs and tax revenue, SLDC Executive Director Rodney Crim said.
Pinnacle said it only intends to proceed with the downtown project if it is also allowed to build a casino in St. Louis' southern suburbs, or if rival casinos are prevented from operating there for at least seven years. The company is eager to get started on both projects.
"We intend to make the city proud," said Dan Lee, Pinnacle chairman and CEO. "We think it's a great vote of confidence in what we've designed."
Meanwhile, in nearby Indiana, there is a push to allow alternative forms of gaming at state racetracks. Last month the House Public Policy, Ethics, and Veterans Affairs Committee approved legislation to add electronic pull-tab machines to the state's two racetracks and to two off-track wagering facilities.
Previous attempts to pass similar legislation have failed, but the track operators remain optimistic that things could change this year. "I'm hopeful that the legislature will realize how important the horse racing industry here is in Indiana - it touches all 92 counties," said Rick Moore, president and general manager of Hoosier Park.
-Paul Doocey, with additional reporting from Andy Holtmann and Patricia A. McQueen