Downstate ‘Little Egypt’ casino plan fields dreams — while up north, Chicago struggles to keep its bid from going south

With the Friday approval of a casino planned for a southern Illinois winery, Chicago is the only authorized city left without a bid.

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The entrance to Walker’s Bluff winery near Carterville, which could soon be home to a casino alongside its upscale wedding venue space.

The entrance to Walker’s Bluff winery near Carterville, which could soon be home to a casino alongside its upscale wedding venue space.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

MARION — Up in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is scrambling to salvage plans for a megacasino.

North and south of Illinois’ big-city economic engine, a host of developers are fighting to claim gambling dens in coveted suburban markets.

And all the while, a small-town vineyard owner 300 miles south of Chicago quietly has been powering forward with her long-held vision for a new Downstate casino.

Tucked into one sentence of the state’s massive gambling expansion law is a new casino license for the “unincorporated area of Williamson County adjacent to the Big Muddy River” — a narrow stretch of land already home to the winery Walker’s Bluff.

CEO Cynde Bunch speaks alongside Gov. J.B. Pritzker outside Walker’s Bluff in July.

CEO Cynde Bunch speaks alongside Gov. J.B. Pritzker outside Walker’s Bluff in July.

State of Illinois

That very specific legislative language was the result of years of lobbying in Springfield by Walker’s Bluff co-owner and CEO Cynde Bunch, whose family has lived on its 277 rolling acres for more than a century before she and husband David Bunch turned it into an upscale event space.

“We are going to show the Midwest what tourism and economic development are all about,” Bunch said Friday, before Williamson County board members voted to approve her plan and send it to the Illinois Gaming Board for final consideration.

That leaves Chicago as the only municipality without a viable casino proposal among the six that were awarded new casino licenses under the gambling expansion that’s supposed to help fund Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature $45 billion capital plan for construction projects statewide.

The Tasting Room at Walker’s Bluff.

The Tasting Room at Walker’s Bluff.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Walker’s Bluff was one of the first stops Pritzker made in July as he toured the state touting his capital plan, saying it would have “a generational impact” on the future of southern Illinois.

Though Williamson County has seen steady population growth for five decades, other parts of the southern third of the state known colloquially as Little Egypt have been losing thousands of residents — and jobs — over the same time period.

Construction contractors Nathan Guinzy and Andrew Smith.

Construction contractors Nathan Guinzy and Andrew Smith.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

“There is nothing being built in southern Illinois right now,” said Nathan Guinzy, a general construction contractor who said he’s seen business in the area lost to Missouri and Kentucky in the decade since the recession.

“So bringing a new resort and casino is huge for the region. People are hoping it gets the ball rolling.”

The area used to be coal mining country, but with that industry in decline, agriculture has returned to economic dominance.

About 17 miles east of Southern Illinois University, Marion is situated in the center of Williamson County, with miles of farmland and winding two-lane highways separating the county seat from the modest antebellum homes of neighboring towns where residents can be counted in the hundreds or even dozens.

Marion’s Old Town Square.

Marion’s Old Town Square.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Narrow country backroads stretch to Walker’s Bluff on the northeast outskirts of the county, with its posh wine tasting room, general store, rows of grape plants, plus a gazebo and an event hall that has hosted hundreds of weddings since 2009.

Besides the happy couples, Walker’s Bluff also welcomed heavy metal legend Ozzy Osborne to its outdoor stage in 2017, when thousands of campers staked ground on the estate for its four-day “Moonstock” festival in celebration of the total solar eclipse that dazzled the area.

A billboard marks the proposed site of a casino at Walker’s Bluff.

A billboard marks the proposed site of a casino at Walker’s Bluff.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Now, in partnership with the Iowa casino operator Elite Casino Resorts, Bunch wants to build a $180 million casino and resort across 77 acres, with a hotel, event center, spa and water park. They estimate the project will create more than 1,000 construction jobs plus 330 casino and resort jobs, eventually pulling in about $63 million annually and pumping more than $3 million a year into county coffers.

“This is going to be a tremendous economic shot in the arm not just for Williamson County, but all of southern Illinois,” Williamson County Board Chairman Ron Ellis said.

Other towns boast of quick access off major highways in their casino bids, but Williamson County officials say they’re confident gamblers will make the 25-minute trip from the Interstate 57 exit to the back-country charm of Walker’s Bluff.

The group’s attorney, Terence Dunleavy, called it “a very unique destination opportunity,” likening it to a “Field of Dreams.”

Williamson County Board Chairman Ron Ellis.

Williamson County Board Chairman Ron Ellis.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

“This is very much a case of ‘If you build it, they will come,’ “ Dunleavy said.

Nor are officials concerned about saturating a gambling market with 432 video slot machines already operating at dozens of bars, gas stations and restaurants, according to Gaming Board records — about one machine for every 155 people in the 67,000-population county. Gamblers have lost more than $11.6 million at those slots so far this year.

The Gaming Board has up to a year to consider Williamson County casino license application. Developers say they could have a temporary gaming site up and running within months of approval.

As for the long elusive Chicago casino, Lightfoot and her staff are negotiating with state lawmakers on revising terms of the gambling law, after an independent consultant determined the taxes on the city casino were too high for any developer to turn a profit. They’ll try to hammer out a new deal during the fall veto session in Springfield.

Artist’s renderings of the proposed casino development:

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