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Homewood-East Hazel Crest aces out south suburban casino rivals, Las Vegas-based developer takes the pot in Waukegan

State regulators rejected bids from Matteson, as well as a Waukegan proposal from a former state senator who poured thousands of dollars into local elections.

Artist’s rendering of a casino proposed by Wind Creek Hospitality just off Interstate 80 near 175th Street and Halsted, straddling the border of suburban Homewood and East Hazel Crest.
Artist’s rendering of a casino proposed by Wind Creek Hospitality just off Interstate 80 near 175th Street and Halsted, straddling the border of suburban Homewood and East Hazel Crest.
Provided by Wind Creek Hospitality

Two of the most important cards in Illinois’ massive gambling expansion have finally been dealt.

State regulators on Wednesday named their chosen developers to break ground on a new casino in Waukegan and another straddling the border of south suburban Homewood and East Hazel Crest, ending a selection process that dragged on for more than two years due to COVID-19 shutdowns and other delays.

While the location of the north suburban gambling emporium was never in doubt, the Illinois Gaming Board picked Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts Inc. to set up its high-stakes shop at the shuttered Fountain Square shopping center in Waukegan — though a legal challenge from a spurned competitor could still be looming.

The field was much wider for the south suburban casino license. The state gambling law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019 that paved the way for the new casinos pitted a handful of suburbs against each other to bid for what is expected to be a cash cow for south suburban communities that have been economically neglected for generations.

Homewood/East Hazel Crest beat out Matteson with a proposal to build the casino just off Interstate 80 near 175th and Halsted streets. Calumet City and Lynwood were culled from the bidding process in October.

Regulators voted 4-0 to grant findings of “preliminary suitability” for the both the new suburban licenses. That means they can start laying the groundwork for the casinos, which have been coveted by officials for decades.

The selections come two and a half years after Pritzker signed the law that created six new casino licenses, introduced legal sports betting, allowed for slots and table games at racetracks and expanded the number of gambling terminals allowed at gas stations, truck stops, bars and other lounges. The coronavirus put a crimp on the expansion, which has rolled out in fits and starts under the chronically understaffed and overworked Gaming Board.

Of the six casinos, only the Hard Rock in Rockford has started taking bets. Pritzker attended the Wednesday groundbreaking of a new casino in downstate Williamson County.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks after the groundbreaking ceremony for a new casino in Williamson County.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks after the groundbreaking ceremony for a new casino in Williamson County.
State of Illinois livestream

Meanwhile, Danville’s revised casino bid is still being reviewed by regulators after an initial proposal fell through. And the most important piece of the gambling expansion — the Chicago mega-casino — is still early in the local selection process. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office has scheduled public presentations from the five proposals for that license Dec. 16.

Pritzker’s office said the expansion “is now poised to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in new state revenues, funding critical vertical infrastructure projects in communities across the state” for his $45 billion capital plan.

The Homewood-East Hazel Crest bid is led by Alabama-based Wind Creek Hospitality, part of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which runs 10 gambling operations in Alabama, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and the Caribbean island of Curacao. Project partners have promised a $440 million, 64,000-square-foot casino along with a 21-story hotel and an entertainment center.

The group is represented by former Gaming Board general counsel Donna More, who also launched a failed bid to unseat Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in the 2020 Democratic primary election.

Donna More, during her unsuccessful run for Cook County’s state’s attorney
Donna More, during her unsuccessful run for Cook County’s state’s attorney
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Wind Creek Hospitality CEO Jay Dorris said in an email that they plan to open the casino in 2023 “and look forward to expanding our network of relationships in the Southland, working closely with leaders, organizations and residents to ensure that the benefits associated with this project are felt by the entire region.”

Matteson Village President Sheila Chalmers-Currin said she was “in disbelief” that regulators rejected their bid in partnership with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, likening the decision to Illinois’ rocky legal cannabis industry rollout that has largely shut out minority entrepreneurs.

Matteson’s bid was backed by dozens of mayors in the Southland Regional Mayoral Black Caucus.

“Obviously, diversity was not top on the list of things to move us forward [in the Gaming Board’s approval process],” Chalmers-Currin said. “I offer my congratulations to Homewood, but there are still quite a few questions that I hope to have answered.”

Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld said their proposal “benefits not only us and East Hazel Crest, but the entire Southland. We’re talking about jobs, good jobs.”

Full House Resorts, a publicly traded company, is behind the $400 million “American Place” Waukegan proposal, which envisions a high-end gambling temple catering to high-rollers — complete with “ultra-luxurious” villas and a helicopter landing pad.

A rendering of the proposed “American Place” casino in Waukegan.
A rendering of the proposed “American Place” casino in Waukegan.
Provided by Full House Resorts

Full House Resorts chief development officer Alex Stolyar said in an email “we appreciate the confidence they put in us and we will now begin working to build the spectacular American Place and make the State of Illinois and the City of Waukegan proud.” A temporary casino site is expected to open within several months.

The Gaming Board had been poised to issue the Waukegan license last month but delayed its decision “out of respect for the judicial process” in a federal lawsuit filed by a foiled bidder.

The Forest County Potawatomi Community sued Waukegan in 2019 after the city voted to eliminate its proposal even though the Wisconsin tribe scored well on the evaluation system. The Potawatomi claimed the process was “rigged” by previous city officials to favor a bid backed by former state Sen. Michael Bond, who poured thousands of dollars into local elections — and whose “North Point” casino proposal ended up being rejected Wednesday.

North Point partner Bill Warner said in an email said they were “disappointed” to lose out — but noted Bond’s group “stands ready to work” if the Full House bid falls through.

The Potawatomi filed for a temporary restraining order to prevent the Gaming Board from moving ahead with its selection until their lawsuit is resolved. Cook County Judge Cecilia Horan turned down that request Tuesday, saying the tribe didn’t have legal standing to hold up the selection.

“The casino is not going to open tomorrow. There are still many, many steps before anyone opens a casino in Waukegan,” Horan said during a virtual hearing.

A Potawatomi spokesman said the tribe will continue pursuing “all available legal paths — including continuing to participate in the ongoing federal mediation with the city — to find the best solution for the citizens of Waukegan.”

Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor — who voted against all the city’s casino proposals when she was on the City Council in 2019 — said “if I had voted for one, it would’ve been Full House. It was a tough time to sort out everything… Hopefully the casino will bring in lots of tourism and be a catalyst for further development.”

Taylor declined to comment on the Potawatomi lawsuit, which Waukegan city attorneys have dismissed as “factually suspect,” intended to shield their Milwaukee casino from competition.