Raci-NO? State reins in land sale amid controversy, busting Tinley Park casino-racetrack plans

Days after Rick Heidner’s name popped up in a federal search warrant — and his business dealings reportedly were tied to mob figures — Gov. J.B. Pritzker held up plans to sell the land earmarked for Heidner’s racino.

SHARE Raci-NO? State reins in land sale amid controversy, busting Tinley Park casino-racetrack plans
Rick Heidner.

Rick Heidner pictured at a Sept. 17 Illinois Racing Board meeting.

Mitchell Armentrout / Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration announced Tuesday it won’t sell state-owned land in Tinley Park, throwing plans for a southwest suburban “racino” off the track.

The quick move comes just days after the name of one of the project’s partners appeared in a search warrant for the office of a state senator facing federal scrutiny — and after a published report linked that same partner to a banking family with reputed mob ties.

State officials told Tinley Park leaders in a two-sentence letter that “at this time” they’re no longer looking to sell the site of the shuttered Tinley Park Mental Health Center, a plot of land at 183rd Street and Harlem that was floated for development as a combination racetrack/casino by video gambling entrepreneur Rick Heidner and Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey. 

Pritzker’s office did not immediately say if the decision was the result of revelations Friday that FBI agents went looking for “items related to” Heidner and his video gambling company Gold Rush Gaming last month when they searched the Springfield office of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago. Heidner was also mentioned in the search warrant released Tuesday for McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski’s office, another local politician under the broadening federal microscope.

Then state Sen. Martin Sandoval in 2008.

State Sen. Martin Sandoval

Seth Perlman/AP file

Nor would Pritzker’s office say if they decided to call off the sale because of a Chicago Tribune report that found Heidner has business ties to the same banking family whose connections to mob figures prompted state regulators to pull the plug on Rosemont’s bid for a casino in 2001. 

Heidner — who has not been accused of wrongdoing — and Carey received Illinois Racing Board approval last month for Playing in the Park LLC to begin harness racing at the Tinley Park site as early as next December. 

But without the land they had planned to lease or buy from Tinley Park, the “racino” that marked a key component of Pritzker’s massive new state gambling expansion appears stuck at the gate. 

Heidner addressed the Racing Board at its meeting Tuesday, asserting to commissioners he is “not a mob affiliate,” while outlining his history of philanthropic and community service efforts, according to Racing Board chairman Jeffrey Brincat.

Heidner did not return messages from the Sun-Times seeking comment. 

Brincat acknowledged the racing dates awarded to Playing in the Park last month are now “moot,” but he said he believes the state’s new gambling law could allow another entity to step in and apply for the racing license. 

Illinois Racing Board Chairman Jeffrey Brincat

Illinois Racing Board Chairman Jeffrey Brincat

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times file

Brincat said the Racing Board followed all state statutes in its vetting of Heidner as part of the group’s racing application. 

”It just shows that as these things shake out, I don’t think it ever is quite as simple as some would hope,” Brincat said. “It’s a vigorous [horse racing] community. People are going to try to make the most of what came out of the spring [gambling] legislation.”

But finding another major investor for the state’s decimated horse racing industry could prove challenging. The Tinley Park racino would have been the first new track to open in Illinois in nearly 75 years, with the state now down to just three tracks: Hawthorne in Stickney, Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights and Downstate Fairmount Park. 

And even with Racing Board approval, Heidner and Carey had not yet applied for a license with the Gaming Board to operate the casino portion of the Tinley Park operation, which could have included up to 1,200 slots and table games. That deadline is fast approaching Oct. 28, a Gaming Board spokesman said. 

“The Legislature included the opportunity to develop a new racino as part of Illinois’ gaming expansion because such a facility is vital to the survival of the racing industry and the thousands of jobs that it supports,” Carey said in a statement. “We are going to work with all industry stakeholders, elected officials and regulators to determine new options to bring this to fruition.”

Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey

Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

State Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat who has led gambling expansion talks in Springfield for years, said “the legislation provided a license for a racetrack in the Southland, and our hope is to see that built.

”We’ve got to see how this develops,” he said. 

Tinley Park village officials said they were “as blindsided as the state of Illinois was by the recent allegations in the media over the weekend related to Rick Heidner.

“The village is currently assessing its options going forward. We still strongly believe the racino is an outstanding project that will bring significant jobs and tax revenues to the state, the south suburban region and the village due to its superb location and other tourism related facilities in the area,” village officials said in a statement.

Heidner, a suburban real estate developer, also runs Gold Rush Gaming, the state’s third largest video gambling operator with thousands of slot machines in more than 500 bars, restaurants and lounges statewide. 

He told the Racing Board last month that he had been in talks with Tinley Park officials about developing a senior living complex at the mental health center site, but shifted focus with the spring passage of Illinois’ gambling expansion, which included new licenses for the suburban racino and six casinos statewide. 

Heidner said he made ties with the tight-knit Illinois racing community when he tried to acquire the track at Balmoral Park before it shut down in 2016, and partnered on the project with Carey, whose family has been at the center of the Illinois racing world for more than a century. 

Their $450 million plan for the 120-acre Tinley Park site included a 4,000-seat grandstand, concert festival ground in the middle of a mile-long track, plus a full backstretch, hotel, sportsbook, parking garage and an upscale restaurant.

But that was thrown up in the air Friday, when an unredacted search warrant for Sen. Sandoval’s office showed federal agents were looking, among other things, for documents related to Heidner and Gold Rush Gaming, as well as another business owner who has Heidner’s machines in a dozen of his gambling lounges statewide. 

Sandoval stepped down Friday from his post as chair of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee, which played a key role in advancing the new gambling legislation that is designed to help fund Pritzker’s $45 billion capital plan for hundreds of construction projects across Illinois. 

Hours after that search warrant became public, the Tribune published a report that found Heidner has partnered on numerous real estate investments over the years with Rocco Suspenzi, chairman of Parkway Bank. 

Lawyers for the Gaming Board presented evidence in 2005 showing that Suspenzi and his son Jeffrey Suspenzi wrote checks totaling $125,000 to buy part of an interest in the Emerald Casino targeted for Rosemont from an Emerald investor whom state lawyers say had links to organized crime, the Sun-Times reported at the time. 

The seller was Joseph Salamone, described by state investigators as linked to the mob through a brother. Gaming Board lawyers also sought to tie the Suspenzi family to the village of Rosemont and its mayor, Donald E. Stephens, a beneficiary of large campaign contributions from the Suspenzi family. The Gaming Board eventually rejected Rosemont’s casino plan, ruling they had hidden the financial ties to organized crime figures.

One person who is not sorry to see the Tinley Park racino plans fold for now is Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin, who led a chorus of south suburban mayors slamming racetrack owners for getting a “free ride” from state lawmakers on a gambling den while a handful of towns are left to duke it out among themselves for a standalone casino license.

She announced Matteson’s casino proposal on Monday, the third such proposal put forward for the south suburbs.

“The governor’s announcement today reaffirms our belief that the Matteson proposed site is the best geographical location for a casino in southern Cook County,” Chalmers-Currin said.

Contributing: David Roeder

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