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On top of the world? Rockford mayor recommends casino bid backed by Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen

While Chicago’s casino dreams have stalled, Rockford’s are humming. The city council will weigh in in October. Then the state has a year to choose a casino winner in Illinois’ third largest city.

Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Robin Zander, left to right, of Cheap Trick,
Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Robin Zander, left to right, of Cheap Trick, perform at Hard Rock Cafe in New York in 2010.
Diane Bondareff/PictureGroup for Hard Rock Cafe)

Three casino groups vying to set up shop in Rockford may be singing “I want you to want me” to the Illinois Gaming Board.

But only one contestant has the backing of the guy who wrote that tune — Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, who also happens to be a Rockford native.

And on Monday, the Hard Rock International tucked another feather in its baseball cap with the endorsement of Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara.

Yet another feather would come in the form of a nod from the city council, which must pass along its choice, or choices, to the state’s gaming board by October 26.

The board then has up to a year to choose a winner.

The Hard Rock proposal includes a minimum annual payment of $7 million annually in gaming taxes to Rockford, according to McNamara’s statement, which highlighted strengths and weaknesses of the three proposals.

Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen performs before a presentation touting the Hard Rock Casino Rockford in 2019.
Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen performs before a presentation touting Hard Rock International’s proposed Rockford casino last week. File photo.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Hard Rock, which is based in Florida, has proposed a $310 million development that includes a 64,000-square foot gaming floor, a 1,600-seat Hard Rock Live concert venue — and a 110-foot guitar beckoning gamblers from the front of the building.

Its proposed 25-acre site currently is adjacent to a busy highway, a motel, a tennis center and an abandoned water park. But Hard Rock officials says they’d use it to pump $282 million annually into the local economy.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a massive gambling expansion into law in June — authorizing new casino licenses in Rockford, Chicago, and four other municipalities.

The prospect of a future casino in Chicago is stalled over matters of taxes and profitability that could scare off developers and may require new legislation to sort out.

The trip from Chicago to Rockford is just a 90-minute journey up Interstate 90.

Like Chicago, Rockford has been floated as a possible casino site during past gambling expansion negotiations in Springfield over the past two decades, most recently with former Gov. Pat Quinn vetoing a 2013 bill that would have brought one to Rockford.

Unlike Chicago, though, Rockford was quick to embrace video gambling terminals once they went live in 2012, and it now houses 462 of the machines at 97 different establishments across the city, the second highest number in the state, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.