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Southern Illinois casino opens, sends $25 million to the state

Photo caption: Gov. JB Pritzker (center) is joined by state and local leaders to cut the ribbon on Walker’s Bluff Casino and Resort on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jennifer Fuller)

Gov. JB Pritzker joined hundreds of people from across southern Illinois on Friday to celebrate the opening of the state’s 14th casino on a rural estate just outside of Carterville.

The Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort is the fourth casino to open in recent years that was authorized by a 2019 gambling expansion law that was a centerpiece of Pritzker’s first term. It features 650 slot machines and table games, a hotel, restaurants, a full-service spa and 1,200-seat event center. It is expected to employ about 300 people.

“Hospitality, jobs, economic development – that is what today’s announcement represents,” Pritzker said. “When I proposed that we pass a casino gaming bill a few years ago, this is what I had envisioned.”

The 2019 law amending the Illinois Gambling Act authorized six new casinos, including the one in Carterville, four “racinos” – combination horse racetracks and casinos – online and retail sports betting and expanded video gambling.

Proceeds from the gambling expansion were earmarked, in part, to provide funding for Rebuild Illinois, the state’s multi-year capital improvement program to repair and build new roads, bridges and government buildings across the state. The transportation-related portions of the capital improvement program is also supported by increases in the motor fuel tax and licensing fees.

Each casino is required to contribute one-time fees within 30 days of opening to the Rebuild Illinois fund. For Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort, that amounts to $25.3 million, according to the Illinois Gaming Board. Pritzker said the state has already committed Rebuild Illinois funding to numerous projects throughout the southern Illinois region, such as for new buildings at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and John A. Logan College in Carterville.

The $147 million project in southern Illinois has been in the making for years, an effort spurred by Cynde Bunch and her late husband David, who opened an upscale restaurant and general store by the same name in 2008 on land that had been in Cynde’s family for generations. Elite Casino Resorts LLC is the majority owner and operator of the casino and resort, although Cynde is a partial owner as well.

The ribbon-cutting on Friday follows the openings of the Hard Rock Casino in Rockford in November 2021 and the American Place Casino in Waukegan in February 2022, both in upstate Illinois, as well as the Golden Nugget in central Illinois’ Danville in June. The Rockford and Waukegan casinos opened in temporary facilities.

Some Illinois casinos are opening their doors and more are on the way

After a 2019 law expanded gambling in Illinois, the state approved six land-based casinos. Two have opened permanent facilities, with two operating in temporary spaces. Tax revenues from these will support some types of state infrastructure spending.

The state’s land-based casinos are already attracting visitors. Last month, just shy of 150,000 people visited the three casinos, representing 15.6 percent of all visitors to the state’s 13 casinos, according to data from the Illinois Gaming Board.

These casino visitors bring in millions of dollars to the state and to local governments each month. In July, casinos allocated $38.3 million for taxes on admissions and gambling – with $30.7 million set aside for the state and $7.6 million for local governments.

The state portion of this money is separate from Rebuild Illinois infrastructure spending and pays for costs at the gaming board, with any excesses being used for educational spending.

There are two more land-based casinos set to open in the coming years. Perhaps the most high-profile casino is the $1.7 billion Bally’s development in Chicago’s River West neighborhood. The Rhode Island-based company operates more than a dozen other casinos around the country, including a riverboat casino in the Quad Cities.

Ahead of the resort’s opening, Bally’s is set to open a temporary operation in the Medinah Temple in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The state’s gaming board has preliminarily deemed it suitable and is expected to conduct inspections in the first week of September, meaning the temporary casino could be open as early as the following week.

The sixth casino is slated to open in 2025 in the south suburban Chicago villages of Homewood and East Hazel Crest near the Indiana border.

The 2019 gambling law represented the largest expansion of casino operations in Illinois in decades. It authorized the Illinois Gaming Board to issue up to 10 new casino permits, including for the four “racinos,” doubling the number of potential licensees.

However, none of the planned racetrack-casino combos have come to fruition to date. Plans for two of them were abandoned. The operators of tracks in Collinsville in the Metro East and Cicero near Chicago have preliminary approval to add casinos but have yet to do so.

The recent expansion of gambling is the first major change to Illinois’ casino industry since 1990, when the Illinois legislature legalized riverboat gambling. It was only the second state to do so – behind Iowa – though numerous states along the Mississippi River followed suit. The first riverboat casino opened in Alton in 1991. Nine others later opened, spanning from Metropolis at the state’s southern border near Kentucky, to the Chicago suburbs.

That original law only authorized riverboat casinos. For years, they were required to traverse the waterways during gambling sessions. A change in law in 1999 allowed the riverboats to remain docked and most of them eventually stopped setting sail.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

This article originally appeared on Capitol News Illinois.

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