Hearing on proposed Illinois gambling expansion draws crowd

News-DemocratJanuary 28, 2014 

— About 250 people with an interest in the region's gaming industry attended a public hearing Tuesday evening on whether Illinois should expand gambling.

Many of those in attendance were affiliated with the horse-racing industry, which stands to gain if slot machines are allowed at tracks. Many others were affiliated with the East St. Louis-based Casino Queen, which would see increased competition from the neighboring Fairmount Park horse track in Collinsville.

State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, is the sponsor of a gambling-expansion bill in the Illinois House, and is gathering input on the plan through public hearings. The hearing, held in the Casino Queen's ballroom, was the first conducted by Rita on the issue.

Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, told the crowd he hopes the casino supporters and the horse-track supporters can "come together and come up with some form of compromise" that would allow both entities to remain profitable and provide jobs.

Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis, said he wants the legislation to end up being a "win-win situation" for both sides. But he noted that Casino Queen taxes provide 40 percent of East St. Louis' municipal revenue, and "the finances are still fragile with the city."

Former East St. Louis Mayor Gordon Bush, who was in office when the casino arrived, was among those offering testimony.

"This city is totally dependent on the Casino Queen," Bush said. He added that the city could "become a ward of the state" without casino money.

Current Mayor Alvin Parks also noted that the casino is the largest private employer in the city. Parks offered other examples of help the city has received from the casino, such as the gift of a large fire truck.

Casino Queen general manager Jeff Watson said the casino, since opening, has generated $1 billion in combined tax revenue for East St. Louis and Illinois. He also said video gambling now allowed in bars, truck stops and fraternal clubs has caused a "cannibalization" of the industry.

"There's only so much gaming wallet to go around," Watson said.

Watson said the employee-owned casino's revenue has fallen from a high of $174 million in 2006 to $124 million in 2013.

Fairmount Park president Brian Zander said the horse-racing industry is struggling, and the track is "really looking for just the ability to survive." He said a "racino" could "create new fans" -- new gaming customers.

Zander said neighboring states that allow slots at horse tracks are able to offer bigger race purses and thereby attract the horses needed for racing. Zander also said if slots are allowed, the track plans to build a large facility that could serve as a venue for horse events and draw people from a wide region.

Lanny Brooks, executive director of the Illinois Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association at Fairmount, said hurting East St. Louis is "the very last thought," but "what we are concerned about is survival."

At one point, the Fairmount group asked that anyone in the ballroom stand up if his or her livelihood depends on the track. About half stood.

Later, the casino's Watson asked those in the crowd whose livelihood depends on the casino to stand. Again, about half of the room stood. The casino has about 670 employees. Fairmount supporters said the track has 300 to 400 employees, but another 500 or so people have track-related jobs, such as farriers.

Tom Swoik, director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, argued the region is too saturated with gambing outlets.

"We are not creating more gamblers, we are simply moving them around," Swoik said.

Others speaking included East St. Louis School District 189 superintendent Art Culver, who said hurting the casino would hurt the school district, and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern. Kern said he's "greatly concerned" about industry saturation, and the possible harm to existing gambling outlets.

The proposed gambling expansion, which last year cleared the state Senate but wasn't called for a vote in the House, also would have allowed a new casino in Chicago as well as new casinos in Rockford, Danville, Lake County and the south Chicago suburbs.

The plan also would allow slot machines at Chicago's airports and up to 900 slot machines at each of the state's horse-racing tracks.

Rita says he believes expanded gambling would benefit the state and the communities hosting it. "But we want to pass a bill that benefits everyone," he said.

Rita said he expects to hold "a couple more" hearings, probably in the Chicago area. He said he expects a vote on the measure during the spring legislative session.

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