EDITORIAL: O’Hare Airport the wrong spot for a casino in Chicago

SHARE EDITORIAL: O’Hare Airport the wrong spot for a casino in Chicago
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(Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

If and when Chicago gets a casino, it should anchor a bustling entertainment district, not be hidden behind airport security barriers.

In a recent interview on WBBM-AM, former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who now is running for mayor, called for putting a Chicago casino at O’Hare Airport, where anyone who wants to gamble a few bucks first would have to go through the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s security checkpoints. That requires having an airline boarding pass, which means any gambling enthusiasts, including tourists, who are not at the airport to fly in or out of town would be denied admission.

EDITORIAL

McCarthy argued that such a casino could be a money-maker for the city, while preventing any casino-related problems such as organized crime, prostitution and illegal drug sales from spilling into the surrounding community. More people would be flying in and out of O’Hare now that the airport is scheduled to get an $8.5 billion makeover, with new concourses and 25 percent more gate capacity.

McCarthy envisions travelers waiting for connecting flights by spending hours at blackjack tables, for example, generating revenue for the city without adding new costs for security.

But according to federal law, any money raised at the airport must be spent there. Revenue from an airport casino, that is to say, could not be used for schools, to shore up underfunded pensions or to help out with other important city needs. An airport casino would not be the budgetary shot in the arm the city envisions with a land-based casino.

Interest in a city casino is spiking again because the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to allow all states to legalize betting on sporting events. In the case of Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, the state of New Jersey is asking the court to allow sports betting by overturning the Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which bans sports betting in most states. If the court allows sports betting, much of that betting could take place at casinos, depending on how state laws are written.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who is working on legislation to regulate sports betting in Illinois on the chance that it is approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, estimates that people spend $5 billion a year on illegal sports gambling in the state. If sports betting is legalized here, that could mean a substantial new stream of revenue for local governments.

The court’s ruling could come any day, although possibly not before the state Legislature’s spring session ends on May 31.

In the years since legalized gambling has been expanded in the United States beyond such hubs as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, planners have learned that casinos designed to keep customers inside — like at an airport — do little to boost business for nearby restaurants, theaters, music venues and stores. If Chicago gets a land-based casino, it should be part of a larger economic development push, designed to encourage patrons to flow back and forth between the casino and other businesses.

For years, gambling dollars have flowed out of Chicago to the suburbs, Indiana and Wisconsin because Chicago does not have its own casino. Past bills introduced in the Legislature to give Chicago a casino, along with new casinos elsewhere in the state, have not passed or have been vetoed. Casino talks are again underway in the Legislature, though no legislation has been introduced.

At this stage of the game, says state Rep. Martin Moylan, D-Des Plaines, investors might be wary of sinking money into new casinos. They worry that our local gambling market might be saturated, especially given the introduction of video gambling in many Illinois towns outside Chicago since that form of gambling was legalized by the state six years ago.

If a casino does come to Chicago, though, it should be an anchor of economic development, not a way station for travelers blowing through O’Hare.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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