SPRINGFIELD -- With a campus of around 20,000 people at any given time, Great Lakes Naval Station is a huge collection of young people in northern Lake County.
And now, anti-gambling activists are arguing that a proposed casino in Lake County would be a bad influence on the young sailors nearby, pointing to research that says young people are more prone to gambling addiction.
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"It's all the excitement and the hype," said Anita Bedell, executive director for Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems. "They're looking for action."
Supporters of the plan, though, say the argument is a red herring. Many of the recruits at Great Lakes aren't old enough to legally get into an Illinois casino and aren't even allowed off the Naval property while in boot camp.
"They're under the age of 21 to start with," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and one of the architects of the gambling plan.
The rest, he said, are adults who can be trusted to make responsible decisions about gambling.
"They people who stay there are all over 21," Link said. "They're the people doing the training."
The training station location argument is another shot fired in the debate over a gambling expansion plan that would put casinos in Park City, Chicago, Rockford, the South suburbs and downstate, along with 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights.
John Sheppard, spokesman for Great Lakes, said the Navy isn't taking a position on the proposal. But he said, at any given time, 5,000 of the campus' recruits are in an eight-week boot camp and not allowed to leave.
About 5,000 others are mostly between the ages of 18 and 24, taking classes on various Naval specialties. They are allowed to leave.
And about 10,000 other people, including civilians, work there as well, Sheppard said.
"It's like a college campus here, except with marching," he said.
That's what worries anti-gambling foes, who have also criticized plans for a casino in downstate Danville, a 30-minute drive east for suburban students attending the University of Illinois in Urbana.
"They're having a hard enough time being away from home," Bedell said.
For the time being, the casino proposal is stalled. The House and Senate have both approved it, leaving its eventual fate in the hands of Gov. Pat Quinn, a vocal gambling critic.
He hasn't said what he'll do with the plan, though, and it's not even on his desk yet. Senate Democrats have held onto the legislation, declining to send the paperwork to Quinn until they can talk it over with him some more.
One of those Senate Democrats, Link, says he's tired of hearing about the problems more gambling opportunities could cause, given that Illinois already has plenty of gambling spots already.
College students and Great Lakes attendees, for example, already can buy Illinois Lottery tickets. They only need to be 18 years old to play.
And Great Lakes residents already can head north, Link says, to the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee.
The whole point of gambling expansion, Link argues, is to keep people from leaving Illinois to gamble and, therefore, keep revenue in this state.
"They still could go up to Milwaukee right now," he said.