Sep 8

Casino developers put chips on table for Waukegan gambling den


Five plans have been submitted for a long-sought Waukegan casino. The city will submit a short list to the Illinois Gaming Board in late October.




Helipads and posh villas. Italianate fountains and dine-in movie theaters. Saltwater pools and cavernous concert halls.

And lots of slots.

They’re all included in a slate of packages being offered by a handful of developers vying for the opportunity to run a newly authorized casino in Waukegan, according to documents released by the city last week.

The north suburb received six formal proposals, though two of those bids are tied together. That means city officials are mulling five competing development plans for a gambling den, all at the site of the shuttered Fountain Square shopping center at Lakehurst Road and Northpoint Boulevard.

Among the players who have shown their cards are the operators of the state’s most lucrative casino, a former state senator whose company poured cash into recent local elections — and a group that was booted from the race for Illinois’ last casino license a decade ago because state regulators were wary of their ties to an indicted Springfield powerbroker.

Waukegan is among six locations in line for a new casino license under Illinois’ colossal gambling expansion signed into law earlier this summer by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

On top of the state’s 10 existing casinos, new ones are also in the pipeline for Rockford, Danville, Williamson County, southern Cook County and Chicago — though a consultant’s report last month threw cold water on the financial prospects of a big-city gambling den.


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Waukegan officials have said they’ll pare down a short list of the city’s preferred proposals and present two or three to the Illinois Gaming Board by the end of October. That state agency has the final say on issuing a license, which will cost the winning bidder upwards of $15 million upfront.

Here’s a quick rundown of the proposals:

Churchill Downs-Rush Street Gaming

Louisville-based corporate gambling giant Churchill Downs Inc. already owns Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in tandem with Chicago casino magnate Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming. They want to expand that brand with Rivers Casino Waukegan — and say they can do it without cannibalizing the $400 million-plus in annual gross revenue they generate just a 40-minute drive away in Des Plaines, by far tops in the state. The group also owns Arlington International Racecourse but recently announced their controversial decision not to install newly authorized slot machines or casino games at the racetrack.




Their 50-page Waukegan proposal is heavily redacted, citing proprietary trade secrets. But they previously disclosed plans for a 1,625-gaming position casino they say will create 1,200 permanent jobs and pump $150 million into the local economy yearly. The plan also calls for a sportsbook, poker room and Luxbar, an “upscale gastropub” that’s part of Gibsons Restaurant Group.

Waukegan Gaming

Headed by Chicago-area real-estate developers Alan Ludwig and Richard Stein, Waukegan Gaming LLC has taken the city to court, claiming the new Waukegan casino license should automatically go to them because of a development contract both sides signed in 2004, the last time Waukegan was in the running for a casino license. The Illinois Gaming Board nixed that proposal because of the group’s ties to William Cellini, who was later convicted of shaking down a Hollywood producer for a campaign contribution to disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.


That casino license ended up going to Bluhm’s Rivers in Des Plaines. Now, Waukegan Gaming LLC says they’re “working with” Bluhm’s Churchill Downs-Rush Street group — and they say they only filed their two-page “separate but parallel” proposal to cover their bases as their court case against the city plays out.

Full House Resorts

The Las Vegas-based development corporation is looking to add Waukegan to the list of five casinos it runs in four states with “American Place.” Their whopping 402-page proposal envisions a 1,560-gaming position den complete with a sportsbook, an “ultra-luxurious collection of villas,” a gourmet restaurant “that will rival the finest restaurants in Chicago” and a helicopter pad “to expedite travel time for hotel guests seeking to bypass traffic.”



Their North Point Casino could eventually max out its gaming positions to 2,000, though their heavily redacted 241-page proposal is light on numbers, including how much they would offer the city for the Fountain Square property. The plan calls for a 5,300-square-foot sportsbook, a 2-acre outdoor amphitheater, five restaurants including an upscale steakhouse and a smoking patio. A second phase of development would include a hotel, ballroom, conference center and a retail entertainment district.

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino

The owners of the Potawatomi in Milwaukee want to expand with a Waukegan Potawatomi Casino, a 130,000-square-foot behemoth with 1,850 gaming positions, three restaurants and a food court.



Instead of building a hotel, they plan to “create strategic alliances” with existing ones. Potawatomi says they can open by December 2021 with a construction tab topping $343 million, and the completed casino eventually creating 2,599 jobs that pump nearly $394 million annually into the local economy, according to their 159-page proposal.

Waukegan Development Associates LLC

This company is headed by real estate broker Andrew Hochberg, who also has a stake in Tap Room Gaming — the company led by competing developer Bond, of the North Point Casino proposal.



They’ve offered $7 million for the Fountain Square land to build a 38-acre casino complex with 1,380 gaming positions, two bars, several restaurants, an outdoor event space and a “scaled replica of a famous Italian fountain.” A second phase of construction would eventually incorporate a dine-in cinema, luxury hotel and a spa boasting a saltwater pool. The company’s 172-page proposal says they’ll eventually create 1,000 jobs and inject nearly $145 million into the economy.

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As some mayoral critics have urged, the city could put the Chicago casino license out for bid anyway ? even with the with tax structure that a state-hired consultant deemed too “onerous” for any prospective developer to break even ? and see if anyone comes to the table. But Lightfoot has said all along she knew the tax structure wouldn’t work. She signed off this week on a compromise from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Rita which would have thrown out the original 72% effective tax rate on the casino, while also giving the developer more time to pay back a hefty “reconciliation fee.” The legislation currently in place taxes the Chicago casino along the same graduated system as Illinois’ 10 existing casinos, while slapping on an additional 33.3% privilege tax to locate in the city. The revised structure would have introduced a new graduated tax system specific to the Chicago casino with a higher overall tax rate compared to existing casinos but with a smaller percentage going to the state, and a relatively bigger chunk earmarked for the city. For example, an existing casino is taxed at 15% of its gross revenue from slot machines up to $25 million. Under the proposal, the Chicago casino would have been taxed at 22.5% of its gross revenue, with 12% of that going to the state and 10.5% going to the city for its police and firefighter pension funds. That didn’t sit well with some Republicans who viewed it as a special deal for Chicago. Most existing casino towns get a 5% cut of their casinos’ gross revenue. The amended bill that fell short Thursday also briefly held out a hope for a new horse racetrack and casino in the south suburbs, weeks after Pritzker tanked a Tinley Park racino proposal led by video gambling magnate Rick Heidner, after Heidner’s name surfaced in federal search warrants. The amendment would have opened the door to a new harness racetrack in Crete, where Balmoral Park shut down in 2015 ? and which Heidner made a failed bid to purchase out of bankruptcy. But the struggling horse racing industry did not net any legislative wins in the fall veto session. Tina Sfondeles reported from Springfield; Mitchell Armentrout reported from Chicago.
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