ROCKFORD — The city of Rockford has been seeking a casino for just about as long as Chicago has.
But while state lawmakers have been forced back to the legislative drawing board to rework plans to bring a gambling den to Chicago, Illinois’ third-largest city is already winnowing down a list of three potential casino developers looking to set up shop just a 90-minute journey up Interstate 90 from the state’s largest city.
Those could-be casino operators presented their plans to the public at a packed Monday night hearing at Rockford’s Coronado Performing Arts Center, where they touted rosy forecasts of job creation and economic stimulation, boasted grandiose designs including an aquarium, a concert hall and a water park — and deployed some local star power in the form of famed Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen.
Nielsen has been in on the casino dealing almost from the outset, joining Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara in Springfield in May to push for a casino in his hometown.
And barely two weeks after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed that massive gambling expansion into law — authorizing new casino licenses in Rockford, Chicago, and four other municipalities — Nielsen was tapped to endorse Hard Rock International’s bid to break ground on the shuttered Clock Tower Resort property near State Street and Lyford Road.
“I think this is gonna be an amazing project,” the Rockford native said after ripping into quick renditions of “Hello There” and “I Want You to Want Me” on one of his trademark checkered Flying V guitars.
“My involvement is all family,” Nielsen said. “And I’ve got a few guitars that I wanna get put up someplace here in town,” he joked of the proposed Hard Rock Café.
“I don’t need a job, but some people do. This would be a good investment.”
In the ensuing and decidedly less raucous presentation by Hard Rock, executives for the Florida-based corporate casino heavyweight flaunted a $310 million development plan that includes a 64,000-square foot gaming floor, a 1,600-seat Hard Rock Live concert venue — and a 110-foot guitar beckoning gamblers from the front of the building.
Their proposed 25-acre site currently is adjacent to a busy highway, a motel, a tennis center and an abandoned water park. But Hard Rock says they’d use it to pump $282 million annually into the local economy.
Two miles north, a group branded as Forest City Partners — which includes Chicago consultant Henry Leong, who according to a professional biography has served as a marketing specialist for a handful of gambling companies including Trump Casino — wants to bring a 136-acre entertainment complex to an undeveloped plot bordered by farmland and a residential plot near Spring Creek and Lyford roads.
The so-called Forest City Entertainment Complex would feature “family entertainment combined with adult entertainment,” partner Tom LaSalle said.
The group had initially been planning a senior housing complex before the state’s gaming expansion passed, but they have since added a hotel, casino, water park, golf venue, a video game “kids zone” and mixed-use retail developments to the mix.
The Forest City casino would have a 60,000 square-foot gaming floor, and the overall complex — with an estimated $400 million development cost — would create 2,000 permanent jobs and generate $18 million in annual property tax revenue, the group said.
The third proposal is led by Wisconsin real estate development firm Gorman & Company, which wants to tuck a casino next to a downtown hotel and conference center it’s already building on a 13-acre parcel along the western bank of the Rock River near Cedar Street.
The proposed Water Power Entertainment District creates “an anchor to help the downtown area flourish,” project adviser Steve Gallaway said.
Besides a 60,000-square foot, 1,200-gaming position casino, the Gorman plan includes a rock-themed bar and restaurant with a 300-to-500-seat concert hall, a bowling alley and bocce ball court, plus an aquarium with virtual reality exhibits and “touch tanks” for kids.
The casino would create 800 full-time jobs, the group said, and could get up and running in time to get a leg up on a new casino that’s vying to open just across the state border in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Like Chicago, Rockford has been floated as a possible casino site during past gambling expansion negotiations in Springfield over the past two decades, most recently with former Gov. Pat Quinn vetoing a 2013 bill that would have brought one to Rockford.
Unlike Chicago, though, Rockford was quick to embrace video gambling terminals once they went live in 2012, and it now houses 462 of the machines at 97 different establishments across the city, the second highest number in the state, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.
And while the Gaming Board has recommended the General Assembly reconsider terms of the new Chicago casino license in light of a report that found it infeasible due to high taxes, a team of Rockford city officials is expected to make a recommendation to its city council by the end of this month.
The council will then approve one or more proposals, which, under the new gambling law, must be submitted to the Gaming Board by Oct. 26. That state agency then has up to a year to approve the winning developer.