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Casino bill puts south suburban properties in play

Towns with available land are talking deals with gaming interests.

The shuttered Tinley Park Mental Health Center
A portion of Tinley Park Mental Health Center is shown in 2012. Lawmakers and village officials say a combined racetrack-casino could be built on the 280-acre campus of the now-closed facility.
Joseph P. Meier/Sun-Times Media

Even in the best of times, progress comes slowly to much of the south suburbs. But action by the Illinois General Assembly has set off a land rush in communities that often get the brush-off from developers.

When state lawmakers endorsed a sweeping expansion of gambling, most attention focused on the license granted to Chicago. The same bill, however, could bring two gambling complexes to the south suburbs.

One would be a combined racetrack and casino — it’s being called a “racino” — that lawmakers and village officials say could be slated for the 280-acre campus of the closed Tinley Park Mental Health Center.

The south suburbs also would get a separate casino license, minus the racetrack. At least three sites are being pushed for that development, and more may emerge.

State Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest)

“Different communities are working together with companies to put proposals together. I think there will be some very strong proposals,” said Reggie Greenwood, executive director of the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corp., which works with the local tourism group.

If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the casino expansion as expected, the Illinois Gaming Board would pick the sites. The bill spells out a revenue sharing arrangement for the south suburbs regardless of the sites chosen, which could help forge a regional consensus.

Strong interest has come from village leaders in East Hazel Crest and Homewood on behalf of a plot southwest of Interstate 80-294 and Halsted Street, and from Lynwood and Ford Heights, advocating for parcels near U.S. 30 and state Route 394.

Less active in its campaign but still in the mix is Crestwood, which has suggested about 50 acres along the Cal-Sag Channel east of Cicero Avenue.

State Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest), supports the East Hazel Crest and Homewood effort, which involves land in his 30th District. “In all fairness to the other communities, I think that’s the site that is the most viable,” he said.

Davis said the towns have talked with an out-of-state gaming operator. “They are ready to go,” he said.

Angela Mesaros, community and economic development director in Homewood, said the village will meet with casino operators in a few days. She referred other questions to Mayor Rich Hofeld, who did not respond to messages.

Lynwood Mayor Eugene Williams likewise said he has scheduled meetings about a casino proposal. “We are working on putting together a stellar team,” he said.

Working with adjoining Ford Heights, the team could offer 58 acres northeast of the Route 394 - U.S. 30 interchange. Ken Peach, a broker with Coldwell Banker Commercial, has listed the property, calling it “virgin farm ground,” for sale at $2.9 million.

“A casino is a good project for the south suburbs overall, and this site makes the most sense,” Peach said. “It would be smart to direct some of the economic benefits to Ford Heights because it is a poor community.”

Peach said the suburban gambling market is strong enough that the new operations can attract business without hurting existing casinos such as Hollywood and Harrah’s in Joliet.

Casino expansion theoretically offers opportunities for Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm, whose holdings include Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. In a statement, Greg Carlin, CEO of Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming, said the company is focused on improving Rivers Casino to meet the new competition. “We have not yet determined our interest in pursuing any of the new licenses,” Carlin said.

Any casino proposal is likely to include a broader plan for an entertainment district, the better to attract families and others with less interest in wagers.

That’s also true in Tinley Park, where officials are developing a plan with Rick Heidner, owner of slot machine operator Gold Rush Gaming. Dave Niemeyer, Tinley’s village manager, said after considering a housing development at the former mental health center, “our energies are now focused on the ‘racino’ because of the state legislation.”

Several vacant buildings sit on the property, which runs northwest of 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue. The state-owned facility closed in 2012.

Niemeyer said a commercial development means village revenue without creating new residents who need schools and other services.

“The site, which is located in the same entertainment district as the Tinley Park Convention Center and Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, could potentially include a hotel, a

Tinley Park Village Manager Dave Niemeyer
Provided photo

high-end restaurant, banquet space, a golf entertainment facility, youth athletic facilities and a sports dome,” Niemeyer said in a village newsletter. “Add our eclectic mix of hotels into the equation, and a racino complex fits perfectly with the entertainment appeal of the area.”

Advocates of gambling expansion hope if their efforts cannibalize anybody’s business, the victims will be casinos in Indiana.

“It’s 80 to 90% Illinois license plates at those Indiana casinos,” said state Rep. Bob Rita (D-Blue Island), sponsor of the gambling bill.

Rita said a Chicago casino shouldn’t hurt any new south-suburban competitors.

But Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta isn’t sure how many gamblers there are to go around. So while he’s suggesting a casino for land the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District owns and his town has cleaned up over the last three years, he’s curbing his enthusiasm.

“We won’t be offering any tax incentives,” Presta said. The site, he added, might be best suited for industry.