Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gambling boat talk headed northbound

It ought to be clear by now that the original basis for having riverboat casinos in Illinois – to bolster the local economies of impoverished towns with few other options – is no longer a priority.

That is the logical conclusion after seeing the Illinois Gaming Board at work on Friday. State officials who are trying to figure out where to locate a 10th gambling boat in Illinois have narrowed the search down to three locations out of seven that applied for the outstanding license.

THE SUBURBAN CHICAGO towns that no longer have any hope of getting a casino boat within their boundaries are Calumet City, Country Club Hills, Harvey and Stickney. All of those towns fit the bill of financially struggling communities, and they all are located in the southern part of Cook County.

By comparison, the three towns that are still in the running to get a casino – Des Plaines, Rosemont and Waukegan – all are north of Chicago, with the hometown of Jack Benny being located on Lake Michigan nearly in Wisconsin.

Now I’m not going to claim that Waukegan and Des Plaines are flourishing communities that couldn’t use the economic boost from having a riverboat casino within those municipalities.

But those towns do not reach the level of economic despair that can be found in patches of the Chicago south suburbs.

IT WOULD APPEAR the powers that be who have a say in the citing of a 10th and final (unless more licenses are created at some point in the future) license are determined to put the gambling boat in a place they believe to be accessible to the more economically solid Chicago North Side and surrounding suburbs.

The idea of a boat in an old-line small city like Waukegan floating in Lake Michigan near the state line would be unique among Illinois’ collection of riverboat casinos, while Des Plaines has a location convenient to the Northwest Side neighborhoods of Chicago proper, and could be a short taxicab ride from the Chicago-area hotels that are congested around O’Hare International Airport.

And that is why all the south suburban sites got shot down at this point.

So Calumet City officials were wasting their breath when they argued that putting a casino in their town, adjacent to the River Oaks Shopping Center on the Little Calumet River, could take away some of the crowds that now flow into Indiana to fulfill their gambling itch at the casinos in and around Hammond.

COUNTRY CLUB HILLS officials might as well give up their huge, and vacant, site that has been open for years, even though their town was centrally located in the south suburbs with easy access to Interstates 80 and 57 – which would mean it would have easy access from Chicago, central Illinois and Indiana.

Mike Ditka turned out to be a useless ornament in the desires of Stickney to build a casino adjacent to the Hawthorne Race Course. The one-time Chicago Bears coach was the celebrity spokesman whose image would have been used to promote the casino as a perfect place for “Grabowskis” to gamble.

And as for Harvey, that town got dumped on even though the company that wanted to operate a casino there placed one of the highest bids to the state ($175 million, compared to the $100 million put forth by Des Plaines).

So much for the town that some people only remember as the site of the now-demolished Dixie Square Shopping Center that was used to shoot scenes in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.”

IT WOULD APPEAR that southern Cook County (the roughly 100 blocks of territory located south of the southernmost part of Chicago at 138th Street) just fell off the Illinois Gaming Board’s radar, even though state officials said their priority was to come up with sites where a casino would generate the most money to be diverted to public education.

Either that, or the idea that four sites from the region (compared to two northwest suburban and one far north suburban) all managed to compete with each other, thereby causing them to shoot each other down.

As it turned out, the Illinois Gaming Board gave some consideration to the Calumet City proposal (which means that the concept of dumping on Indiana was considered a worthwhile goal), while ignoring outright all the other three towns.

Now as somebody who has lived in a few south suburban towns (along with Chicago far South Side, near North, North and Northwest sides) during my life, I’m aware of the thought process often applied to the south suburbs.

OR, I SHOULD say, how they are often overlooked.

But I will admit that I expected one of these towns to get included in the final three.

I was convinced personally that Stickney, with its use of Ditka and the existence of a race track, would draw just enough attention to make a “Final Three” list, even though I never expected it to be the town ultimately chosen for the riverboat casino.

For I ultimately still expect the final site for the 10th casino boat to be Rosemont – the same suburb that was given the casino a few years ago, only to lose it because of concerns that then-Mayor Don Stephens had ties to organized crime.

SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE that Rosemont was only included in the “Final Three” to create the illusion that its proposal (with a $435 million bid) was taken seriously, so as to reduce the chances that the village could successfully sue Illinois for putting their previously-promised casino elsewhere.

But I still see a site located so close to O’Hare and the cluster of hotels around the airport being the state’s preference. All of those people could gamble at a Rosemont casino, and possibly shuttle buses could take people from the airport to the casinos while they wait for a connecting flight.

What better goal for the area economy to have people lose their money here during their few hours in Chicago. I remain convinced that state officials will figure out a way to get over the moralistic objections of the past that Rosemont village government had ties to organized crime.

After all, anybody who thinks that gambling can be the basis for economic development is not the kind of person who gets too worked up over morals.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Chicago is destined to get yet another gambling boat in the ( metropolitan area, to go along ( with the existing boats in Joliet, Aurora and Elgin, along with the Indiana-based casinos in East Chicago, Gary and Hammond.

Many of those south suburban casino boat bids were from people willing to put economic jolts ( ahead of social morals.

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