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How and why a casino or racino might — or might never — come to the south suburbs

The riverboat gambling act was passed to help economically distressed communities. People in the south suburbs claimed that some of their communities were among the poorest in the nation.

A roulette table at a Harrah’s casino in Northwest Indiana.
A big move to expand gambling in Illinois, with renewed hope for a casino in the south suburbs, became possible when Chicago finally jumped into the game, writes Phil Kadner.
File Photo

People really don’t appreciate the mystery that is Illinois. I mean, this stuff is better than space aliens building Egyptian pyramids.

Take the racino proposed for Tinley Park.

A racino is a combination racetrack and casino. There is no such thing anywhere in Illinois. But it somehow got included in the giant casino expansion bill passed by the Legislature last spring.

For 20 years or more people in the south suburbs had been clamoring for a casino.

You see, the riverboat gambling act was originally passed to help economically distressed communities. People in the south suburbs claimed that their communities (Robbins, Ford Heights and Chicago Heights, to name a few) were among the poorest in the nation and just happened to have substantial minority populations.

A casino in the south suburbs of Cook County would mean jobs, tax revenue and perhaps future economic development.

They were so desperate to get a casino that they agreed to share the revenue among more than 35 south suburbs (the number today is something like 42).

Try as they might, they couldn’t get a casino bill passed, even though they pointed out that just across the state line, Indiana casinos were making millions of dollars off Illinois residents, helping to balance that state’s budget.

There were public hearings. Elected officials and casino operators in Joliet said they didn’t want to see a casino in the south suburbs, even in Lansing near the state line, because it would take revenue away from them.

It got only worse after the State of Illinois decided to allow slot machines in every bar, hotel and VFW hall, further cannibalizing the market.

Nevertheless, other communities in Illinois joined in the push to get a casino for their own areas. But those bills died in Springfield.

And then Chicago, after years of saying it didn’t need any filthy casino revenue, said it wanted a seat at the table.

No one knew what that would mean for the financial viability of any south suburban casino (stuck between Chicago and Indiana) in the future, but the fact that Chicago wanted a license meant casino expansion would probably pass.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the racino was born, proposed to be located right next to the proposed new south suburban casino locations. The racino location was in Tinley Park, in Orland Township, on land owned by the state. Tinley Park and Orland Township are not financially distressed. They do not have substantial minority populations.

Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld, who wants his village to get a casino license, said no one asked his opinion about the racino, which he first heard about in the news media.

State Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, was equally surprised. He thinks it might have been a good idea to have a study about the impact of a racino on the south suburbs and the financial viability of a new Southland casino operating near a racino.

State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, the chief sponsor of the gambling legislation, admitted the casino expansion bill came together rather fast and he wasn’t privy to all the negotiations, but said there were public hearings held and no one voiced an objection.

Tinley Park officials attended a public hearing in Springfield and told me they were excited about hosting a racino in their community. No one in Tinley Park complained, I was informed.

Unfortunately, the name of the developer behind the racino plan appeared in a search warrant for the office of a state senator facing federal scrutiny and a published report linked him to a banking family with reputed mob ties.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker now says he will never sell the state land to build a racino.

A Tinley Park official told me the developer spoke to the village board and there is still hope. Other people tell me that Matteson, seeking a casino license, may now be in line for the racino.

As a mythical king of Siam once said, “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know.” Is a puzzlement.

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