Casino for downtown Springfield proposed

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - A Springfield lobbyist and developer is once again promoting the idea of a casino for downtown Springfield coupled with video gaming positions that would be permanently located at the state fairgrounds.

But while a House subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing on a massive gambling expansion bill on Monday, Springfield won't be part of the mix. A new gambling expansion proposal filed in the House Friday afternoon called for six new casinos in the state, but not in Springfield.

Much of the new plan mirrors legislation that was passed by the Senate last year, but never came to a vote in the House. It puts new casinos in Chicago, the south Chicago suburbs, Rockford, Danville, Lake County and Williamson County in far southern Illinois.

"The House decided at this time not to include any more casinos beyond the original Senate version," said Ryan Keith, a spokesman for Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island. Rita is the House sponsor of the gambling expansion bill. He is also chairman of the Gaming Subcommittee of the House Executive Committee, which will hold the hearing Monday.

During an appearance with The State Journal-Register editorial board last week, Chris Stone acknowledged that next year might be more promising for gambling expansion.

"I think the legislative will probably would be greater next year than it would be this year to be able to get something done," Stone said. "It seems to me the political will may not be there because frankly, it's an election year. There's always more will to get something like that done in a non-election year."

Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, also is skeptical that anything will happen this year despite the hearing on Monday.

"The fact they waited until a couple of days before adjournment to have a subcommittee hearing shows there wasn't an interest to actually move a bill, and that's unfortunate," Syverson said. "Communities are struggling. They need this revenue. The state needs the revenue."

Stone's proposal calls for a 60,000-square-foot casino to be built on the parking lot south of the Bank of Springfield Center. The lot is used for parking for the county building.

The plan also calls for retail businesses and 200,000 square feet of space to expand the convention center. BOS Center general manager Brian Oaks told the editorial board that Springfield loses larger conventions to Peoria, which has more space.

The plan also would put 200 video gaming positions at the state fairgrounds that could be used all year. Revenue from the machines would be split between the state and the State Fairgrounds Foundation, which is trying to raise money to repair buildings on the grounds.

Stone said the machines would be housed in a building on the north side of the fairgrounds and separated from other fairgrounds activities.

"That's not going to ruin any of the family activity that's going on at the rest of the fairgrounds," he said.

Stone's proposal would require lawmakers to approve a change in the way revenue from the casino is distributed. The city would continue to receive the share allocated to cities, but a major part of the revenue that would normally be sent to state coffers would instead be distributed to more than a dozen local entities, including Springfield schools, Lincoln Land Community College, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the medical district, and for economic development. Stone said the unique distribution system is intended to compensate for Springfield being the hub of state government.

"Forty percent of the commercial buildings in Sangamon County don't pay any property tax," he said. "That is unique to Springfield. That doesn't happen in any other city that has a casino or any of the ones that are proposed to have one."

Stone first floated the idea of a Springfield casino last year as the General Assembly was struggling to pass its first budget in more than two years. Last year, Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, sponsored legislation to bring a casino license to Springfield, but gambling expansion never got traction.

Butler said last week that he still supports the idea, which acknowledging that he's heard from businesses that have video gaming terminals who are opposed.

"The video gaming folks in town are very concerned about it," he said. "I've heard from city council members who are concerned about the video gaming revenue as well."

Stone argues that a casino will attract different gamblers than those who patronize video gaming parlors.

The board of Downtown Springfield Inc. has endorsed Stone's proposal, said its director, Lisa Clemmons Stott.

City input

If lawmakers are considering permitting cities for casino licenses, Springfield should be thrown into the mix, Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said.

"We would rather have the option than not have an option," Langfelder said.

He would also request a referendum to gauge whether Springfield residents want a casino. In 1994, Sangamon County overwhelmingly passed a non-binding referendum that said before gambling was expanded in their county, the voters should be given the opportunity to weigh in.

Other than having a referendum and the opportunity for casino, Langfelder said there were be several other details for him and aldermen to consider before he could throw his support behind Stone's proposal.

Springfield aldermen were wary of commenting about plan that none of them have seen, though most said they would be willing to hear Stone's pitch. If Springfield were to proceed with a casino, it would have to do so cautiously, they said.

"I don't think it's something we can turn a switch on and turn a switch off," Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath said.

A frequent concern cited was for the mom-and-pop businesses that are kept afloat with the help of video gaming revenue. Almost every ward has restaurants, lake clubs, fraternal organizations, and businesses that have benefited from the terminals. According to the most recent reporting, Springfield had the most video gaming terminals in the state.

"I don't want to put one casino up and put out 50 businesses," Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer said.

Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor, whose ward includes most of downtown Springfield, said another consideration is that revenue for video gaming terminals goes to the city's infrastructure fund.

"What would it do for our infrastructure budget? Would there be a way to make that up?" Proctor said. "I think having a casino won't solve all of downtown's problems."

A casino could be solution to the city's deficit, though, Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen said.

"We are not the morality police," Theilen said. "Yes, there are some people with gambling addictions and other problems. We have to make sure we are cognizant of that. But everyone makes their own decisions."

One alderman said he wouldn't even consider having a casino in Springfield.

"Casino gambling and video gambling is premised on the strong taking advantage of the weak," Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said. "It's bad public policy to promote broad-based gambling. I think it basically encourages people to waste their time in pursuit of gain that goes to the owner of the gambling enterprises."

Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso said any talk of a casino in Springfield is premature.

"My school of thought is us getting a casino license is next to ... it's probably not going to happen," DiCenso said. "It's just a long shot."

The proposed gambling expansion bill would give establishments permission to have six video gaming machines rather than the current five. It does not allow video gambling at the fairgrounds, nor does it contain any provisions for sports gambling, fantasy sports betting or internet gambling. However, it does allow horse racing tracks to have table games along with slot machines.

Revenue from the gambling expansion would be split evenly between capital projects, K-12 education and paying down pension debt.

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