Fairmount Park: Why are we being singled out for no slots?

News-DemocratApril 16, 2014 

A horse and rider take off from the starting gate during a training session at Fairmount Park.

DERIK HOLTMANN/BND

The president of Fairmount Park pleaded with Illinois lawmakers Wednesday to put the track back into legislation that could allow slot machines at Illinois' other horse-racing venues.

Fairmount's Brian Zander gave testimony before a House committee that met in Chicago to work on legislation to expand gambling in Illinois.

Zander told committee members he's having a difficult time explaining to his employees "why we would be singled out, and why the General Assembly would in effect put us out of business."

State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, has worked this year on a gambling-expansion bill. An early version of the bill would have allowed slot machines at each of the five horse-racing tracks in the state.

But during a public hearing on the legislation in January in East St. Louis, the committee heard objections to slots at Fairmount. The Casino Queen in East St. Louis and the city of East St. Louis, which gets about 40 percent of its money from casino taxes, argued that slots at Fairmount would hurt them.

So Rita amended the legislation and cut out Fairmount, telling the track to try to reach a compromise. Rita said Wednesday it's not too late for the sides to reach an agreement that would put Fairmount back in the bill.

"We're not voting on this today. We're not voting on this next week," he said.

But Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, who was serving as a temporary member of the committee, said it was "a pure travesty" to cut Fairmount out of the legislation while leaving the northern Illinois horse tracks in it.

"What did they do in northern Illinois that we have failed to do in Madison County?" Kay asked.

Rita said it's a "unique situation" with the Casino Queen and Fairmount Park because of their proximity.

Kay said it's "fundamentally unfair" to leave Fairmount out of the legislation "at the expense of East St. Louis."

Zander told Rita the parties are continuing to negotiate.

Kay said he'll work to make the sure the bill ends up including slots at Fairmount.

"We're not going to be talking about putting somebody out of business in southern Illinois, when all the gaming's up north to begin with -- with the exception of a boat. That's not going to happen. That's crazy," Kay said.

Bob Molaro, a lobbyist for the horse-racing industry, told Kay he thinks East St. Louis leaders are "scared out of their wits" that they'll end up "10 times worse than Detroit" if the city loses its casino money.

The state's horse tracks say they need slot machines in order to increase revenue and offer larger purses for the races. They say horse owners are choosing to compete in states where the tracks have slots and can offer larger purses.

Zander said southwestern Illinois and Fairmount Park are losing out to the casinos and sports venues of St. Louis.

"We're getting killed," he said.

Fairmount Park has about 400 employees, and accounts for about 600 spin-off jobs, according to the track.

Rita is offering two options in his current bill. One is a plan to add five casinos, including one in Chicago, plus slots at racetracks. The other plans calls for only a state-owned Chicago casino.

Existing casinos oppose the gambling-expansion plan, saying they're already facing significant revenue losses from slot machines at bars, restaurants and clubs, which were legalized last year.

Tom Swoik, director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, testified Wednesday there's been an oversaturation of gambling in Illinois, with "expansion upon expansion" of gaming.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 239-2511.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 239-2511.

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