More than 20 years ago, the Illinois General Assembly granted casino licenses to cities across the state, in hopes of propping up the economies in those communities. As we know, Rockford did not get a license then and many of the cities with new casinos leveraged them into successful economic growth.
Times are much different than they were in the mid-1990s when casino gaming was authorized. While a casino may have helped drive investment back then for Rockford, today I view a casino as an additional part of an already-expanding tourism and entertainment infrastructure and economy, which includes new hotel and retail development downtown, investment in Sportscore Two and the UW Health Sports Factory, growth of the Nicholas Conservatory, Anderson Gardens and other events, venues and programs that continue to make Rockford a regional tourism destination.
Our community is uniquely positioned to be the home of a successful casino entertainment complex. We have easy interstate and highway access from multiple directions. We have a strong and growing tourism infrastructure throughout our community. We have public infrastructure investments in streets and highways in the key corridors where you enter and travel through our city, the same corridors where a casino can and would be successful.
Today, there currently are 10 casinos across Illinois with that number set to expand by six, including Rockford. Sports betting also will be legal in Illinois. The City of Rockford is now well into the required process to attract applicants and select a developer to build and operate a casino within the city limits.
The timeline dictated by the gaming expansion legislation is tight and our team is moving quickly to satisfy the deadlines imposed by the bill. The proposals are due by Aug. 16 and the process, which includes a public hearing, must conclude with a recommendation sent to the Illinois Gaming Board at the end of October.
To be clear on this process: there is no “done deal.” There is no site selected. As of this writing, we have not received one formal proposal, although we anticipate receiving multiple proposals. Since the RFP is comprehensive and requires the submission of detailed information, we expect respondents need time to develop their proposals and we expect those to come in close to the Aug. 16 deadline.
We anticipate and look forward to multiple responses to the RFP from potential developers and operators that may already have strong gaming operations in Illinois or are operating in other jurisdictions across the country and are looking to capitalize on expansion opportunities in Illinois. Public input will be an important part of our decision-making process.
My responsibility as mayor, and also of the City Council, is to select the proposal or proposals that have the BEST opportunity to provide the MOST benefits to Rockford. While location and potential tax revenue are important considerations, there are others.
Those include the applicants’ plans to make additional financial commitments to the city for community development, diversity in hiring and utilization, workforce development, public safety, infrastructure and philanthropy. A “good” location may not be chosen if a proposal in another location offers a better overall benefit to the City and its residents.
I believe a casino in Rockford will provide many benefits that dovetail with my commitments to improve public safety, strengthen our neighborhoods and grow our economy. In the long run, we will ALL benefit.
Tom McNamara is mayor of Rockford