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Black mayors to Pritzker: Stacked deck deals south suburbs a losing casino hand

”While this proposed law appears to allow two casinos (one with a track), in fact, we all know that this will never happen, and the favored track owner will have the only gaming property in South Cook County,” Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin wrote to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Opening day of the thoroughbred racing season at Hawthorne Race Course in 2017.
Opening day of the thoroughbred racing season at Hawthorne Race Course in 2017. File Photo.
Taylor Hartz/Chicago Sun-Times

Editor’s note: Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin backtracked Thursday on her claim in this story that owners of a racino planned for the south suburbs can block a standalone casino from breaking ground nearby. Nonetheless, she remains opposed to the racino, as it would compete with a casino also planned for the south suburbs. To read the Sun-Times’ follow-up story, click here.

A coalition of mayors from mostly African American south suburbs are calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reconsider a key portion of the state’s new gambling law, which they say gives the house edge to owners of a combination horse racetrack-casino over majority-black towns vying for a separate casino license nearby.

Not only would the two new full-blown gambling dens compete with one another for customers in a saturated suburban market, but the law also potentially allows the racino owners to block a traditional casino from setting up shop in the first place. That “11th hour” provision to the gaming bill only benefits “a wealthy, white track owner,” according to Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin.

”While this proposed law appears to allow two casinos (one with a track), in fact, we all know that this will never happen, and the favored track owner will have the only gaming property in South Cook County,” Chalmers-Currin wrote in a June 11 letter to Pritzker publicly released Wednesday. “I speak for the many minorities that suspect this is all a ruse and special legislation to benefit the private racino operator to the disadvantage of the African American community and its leaders.”

Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin
Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin
Facebook photo

Illinois’ sweeping gambling expansion includes a license for the first new Chicago-area racetrack to open in the state since 1946, complete with the new power granted to tracks to offer slot machines, table games and sports betting.

The bill also authorized another casino located in one of the following townships: Bloom, Bremen, Calumet, Rich, Thornton or Worth.

One hangup: that casino can’t be located within 35 miles of the track — effectively ruling out any of those townships — unless the track operator “has given written consent” for the casino to open there, the law says.

Only one group has applied to the Illinois Racing Board to develop the racino in Tinley Park, where it can have up to 1,200 slots and table games in addition to standardbred harness racing. That limited liability company is Playing in the Park, formed last month by Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey and real estate developer Rick Heidner, who is also an owner of Gold Rush Gaming, one of the state’s largest video gambling terminal operators.

A horseplayer handicaps the race at Hawthorne Race Course in 2017.
A horseplayer handicaps the race at Hawthorne Race Course in 2017. File Photo.
Taylor Hartz/Chicago Sun-Times

And there’s no incentive for them to give their blessing to a major competitor in an area with only so many gamblers to go around, Chalmers-Currin said — an assessment shared by most of Illinois’ 10 existing casinos in the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which has deemed the state’s overall market “saturated.”

Chalmers-Currin joined 13 other leaders in the Southland Regional Mayoral Black Caucus in signing a resolution urging Springfield lawmakers to amend the law during the October veto session, by putting the racino on hold and ordering a feasibility study — similar to the one that recently dampened hopes for a Chicago casino — while letting the standalone casino application process move forward.

Pritzker’s office said the gaming board “looks forward to reviewing all qualified applications” for both a casino and racino.

”The governor’s office will continue to work with leaders in the General Assembly and stakeholders to ensure gaming expansion promotes economic development in a way that best meets the needs of our communities,” a spokeswoman said.

Chalmers-Currin doesn’t see how that can happen, arguing the game is rigged.

”We want this expansion to spur economic development,” Chalmers-Currin said in a telephone interview. “We want to make this thing equitable and fair. And the way this is written out, it’s simply not equitable.”

Matteson, which is a 10-mile drive from the proposed racino site at the shuttered Tinley Park Mental Health Center near 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue, is among at least six suburbs that have announced they’ll make their pitch for a casino to the Illinois Gaming Board by Oct. 26, the application deadline. Other candidates include Crestwood, Calumet City, Country Club Hills, Lynwood and Ford Heights, plus a joint effort by East Hazel Crest and Homewood. Those towns are all within the 35-mile range over which the likely racino owners have veto power.

The law also subjects the casino to a revenue-sharing agreement sending 2 percent of its gross revenue to the suburb and another 3 percent spread among dozens of other neighboring Southland municipalities — an agreement that isn’t being imposed on the racino’s windfall.

Robbins Mayor Tyrone Ward, president of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, pictured in 2014.
Robbins Mayor Tyrone Ward, president of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, pictured in 2014.
Sun-Times file photo

”There was no conversation about how this racino would affect residents before it was thrown into the bill,” said Robbins Mayor Tyrone Ward, president of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. “We need to hit ‘pause’ before we make a decision that’s going to affect generations.”

In mid-September, the racing board will hear Carey and Heidner’s plan to develop the track along with a restaurant, banquet and youth athletic facilities. After that, the racetrack developers would need approval from the gaming board to put casino games in play.

Like the state’s three existing racetracks, they would be able to accept sports wagers on-site and at up to three off-track betting parlors under the state’s expansion.