‘Hope springs eternal’ for Danville casino to turn economic tide in eastern Illinois city

Despite declines in casino gambling revenue statewide over the last decade, Danville officials are looking to a long-sought gambling den to create jobs.

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A vacant storefront in downtown Danville pictured Oct. 1. City officials hope a newly state-sanctioned casino can help turn around years of economic decline.

A vacant storefront in downtown Danville pictured Oct. 1. City officials hope a newly state-sanctioned casino can help turn around years of economic decline.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Chuck Hamilton has seen a lot of new businesses come put their chips on the table in Danville over his 64 years in his eastern Illinois hometown, two and a half hours south of Chicago.

And he’s seen a lot more of them fold.

“We’ve lost a lot of plants over the years,” he said Tuesday, rattling off a quick half-dozen defunct manufacturers of everything from jackets and air conditioners to steel dies and tubes.

So while Hamilton isn’t a gambler himself, he’s fine with a casino operator laying odds on the outskirts of town.

“We need the money. We need the jobs, and hell, they say they can do it with this casino. Might as well let them try,” Hamilton said, during a visit to a collectibles shop in downtown Danville.

Chuck Hamilton (left) and Blanca Komosa, at Flea Pickers USA in downtown Danville.

Chuck Hamilton (left) and Blanca Komosa, at Flea Pickers USA in downtown Danville.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Illinois’ sweeping gambling expansion — besides helping fund Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $45 billion capital plan for thousands of construction projects statewide — has also highlighted the hopes being pinned on gambling by struggling towns such as Danville, that are desperate for an economic injection and an influx of full-time jobs.

Like the five other municipalities granted new casino licenses under the new legislation — Chicago, its south suburbs, Waukegan, Rockford, and Downstate Williamson County — Danville city leaders have sought a gambling den for years as its population has steadily declined and poverty rates have ticked upward, while industrial manufacturing jobs have vanished.

Danville’s name has been a constant in gambling expansion talks over the years, most recently with former Gov. Pat Quinn vetoing 2013 legislation that included a Danville casino license. And many in the city are rejoicing.

“This has been a long time coming,” a tearful Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. said before the City Council unanimously passed a measure approving a proposal from a politically connected casino development group that includes a powerful ex-state lawmaker who resigned in controversy earlier this year.

The old Rissman & Son factory in downtown Danville, which produced windbreakers for more than 300,000 military personnel in World War II.

The old Rissman & Son factory in downtown Danville, which produced windbreakers for more than 300,000 military personnel in World War II.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Nearly 25 years after the General Motors foundry shut down in nearby Tilton, the once-prospering city of Danville — where Abraham Lincoln practiced law before his political ascent, and where actors Dick Van Dyke and Gene Hackman grew up — has seen its number of residents shrink to about 30,000, according to U.S. Census estimates. That’s a population decline of about 30% from its heyday in 1970.

And now, more than 30% of Danville residents live below the federal poverty line, more than double the statewide poverty rate of about 12%, Census figures show.

But state and city leaders are betting a casino can help turn that tide, despite the fact casino attendance and revenue figures have been steadily declining for years as video gambling machines have proliferated at at thousands of bars, restaurants, lounges and rest stops since they launched in Illinois in 2012.

“For 30 years, Danville’s been wanting this casino,” longtime city alderman Steve Foster said. “Because you don’t just get things that generate that kind of revenue, even if you get another GM, which will probably never happen.”

Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. (left) and Ald. Steve Foster.

Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. (left) and Ald. Steve Foster.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Blanca Komosa, who runs the Danville vintage resale Flea Pickers USA shop, wasn’t as optimistic.

“Hope springs eternal,” she said from the counter of her store, which sits next to vacant storefronts in the downtown business corridor. “I don’t know if it’s going to bring more customers into my store, and I don’t think it’s going to fix all our problems, but this city needs something.”

Hamilton, 75, who said he buys and sells collectibles and just about anything else he can get his hands on to resellers such as Komosa, says he’s not sold on the revenue projections.

“I can tell you I’ll give you $100,000 by tomorrow. But you’re gonna have to wait till tomorrow to see if I’ve got it,” he said.

Blanca Komosa (left) and Chuck Hamilton, at Flea Pickers USA in downtown Danville.

Blanca Komosa (left) and Chuck Hamilton, at Flea Pickers USA in downtown Danville.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

A recent state report found Illinois’ 10 existing casinos raked in about 3% less for the state in 2018 compared to the previous fiscal year, marking a seventh straight year of diminishing returns.

At the same time, video slots have overcome those casino losses to boost Illinois gambling revenue to new heights, that report found. And Danville has already gotten in on that action with its 128 gambling machines spread across 28 establishments, according to the Illinois Gaming Board, which is policing the rollout of Pritzker’s gambling expansion. Gamblers have lost more than $4.2 million at those Danville machines so far this year, generating nearly $1.1 million in state tax revenue, plus almost $212,000 for city coffers.

As many as seven groups initially showed interest in bidding for the Danville casino after the city put out a request for proposals in July, a few days after Pritzker signed the gambling expansion into law. Three ended up submitting full proposals, with a city steering committee choosing Haven Gaming LLC, a newly formed development group that includes powerful ex-state Rep. Lou Lang, a longtime champion of gambling in Springfield.

Lang, a Skokie Democrat who served 32 years in the General Assembly, most recently as deputy majority leader, resigned in January after he was cleared of harassment allegations leveled by a woman working to pass hemp legislation.

Lang called the casino a “shot in the arm” for Danville — and noted his role in gambling expansion talks over the years.

“[Danville] remained in those gaming bills whenever I drafted them, and of course remained in the final bill in this year after my retirement,” Lang told city council members, adding that he “resigned last year for business opportunities.”

Their proposed 42-acre casino site is tucked inside an industrial directly adjacent to the Indiana border just south of Interstate 74.

The proposed site of a casino development in Danville, just south of Interstate 74 along the Illinois-Indiana border, shown in 2019.

The proposed site of a casino development in Danville, just south of Interstate 74 along the Illinois-Indiana border.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times file

Scott Sypolt, the group’s lead gaming attorney, called their proposal a “wow” experience. Their plan — which also envisions a sportsbook, hotels, high-end restaurants and a rooftop spa — will eventually max out with 2,000 gaming positions and cater to “high rollers,” Sypolt said.

“You’re gonna pass this on I-74, and people are gonna say ‘Wow,’ and do a U-turn right in the middle of the highway,” Sypolt said.

And they say they’ll eventually rake in upwards of $230 million annually, resulting in nearly $14 million in annual revenue for Danville with its 6% share of the casino’s gross revenue. Haven Gaming is also committing to creating at least 400 full-time jobs, pledging an additional portion of its after-taxes revenue to Danville, plus tens of thousands in annual contributions city emergency services and several community groups.

Danville has incentive to get its casino up and generating cash soon, with a casino expected to move forward following a November referendum across the border in Terre Haute, Indiana, about an hour’s drive southwest across the border.

“We are not concerned with Terre Haute,” Sypolt told council members Tuesday night.

It’s a hasty application process. The Danville casino operator must submit their official application complete with a $250,000 fee to the Gaming Board by Oct. 28, and that state regulating agency then has up to a year to vet and approve their license.

Haven Gaming says they’ll have a temporary Danville casino site up and running about a year after that, with ongoing construction on the permanent structure completed sometime around 2023.

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