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updated: 7/17/2011 10:01 AM

How Des Plaines won the 10th casino license after an initial loss

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  • The Rivers Casino in Des Plaines will open Monday, but the long path to this point started in East Dubuque in 1997.

      The Rivers Casino in Des Plaines will open Monday, but the long path to this point started in East Dubuque in 1997.
    Mark Welsh

  • Former Des Plaines Mayor Tony Arredia thought Des Plaines had lost its chance to win the 10th casino license when Rosemont was awarded the rights in 2004.

      Former Des Plaines Mayor Tony Arredia thought Des Plaines had lost its chance to win the 10th casino license when Rosemont was awarded the rights in 2004.
    Mark Black/April 2009

 
 

In 2004, then-Des Plaines Mayor Tony Arredia was dogged by reporters after the Illinois Gaming Board dealt the state's 10th and only available casino license to Rosemont.

It would have been understandable for Arredia to have expressed disappointment after years of work trying to lure the license didn't pay off.

Instead, Arredia congratulated Mayor Don Stephens and said he hoped the Rosemont casino would help the economy of Des Plaines, too.

Little did Arredia know the turmoil to come.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan would raise suspicions about investors in the Rosemont project that would eventually lead to the Illinois Gaming Board stripping the license from Rosemont and taking new bids.

"All of the sudden, the chips were coming our way," Arredia said.

In a few years' time, it was Rosemont that would be offering congratulations to Des Plaines.

At 11 a.m. Monday, Rivers Casino, the product of the state's fabled 10th casino license, will open to the public at the corner of River Road and Devon Avenue in Des Plaines.

The license's long path to Des Plaines -- known as the City of Destiny -- started in East Dubuque, along the Mississippi River, when a 1997 failure of a gambling boat there led to the license being freed up for use by someone else.

The city won the license in 2008, but faced challenges all along. A 1994 nonbinding referendum, pushed by residents fearing addiction and other problems that come along with gambling, showed Des Plaines voters opposed a new casino in their backyard.

Yet, in the early 2000s the issue came back up, in a game being played by Rosemont, Waukegan, Des Plaines, and the south suburbs, all with officials and developers who desperately wanted a profitable casino in their towns.

Some observers had picked Waukegan for the win, arguing that the city best fit the original intent of the gambling law, which sought to send casinos to places that were suffering economically.

Waukegan officials bashed the Rosemont and Des Plaines locations, claiming they would divert the most revenue from existing casinos in Elgin, Aurora and Joliet. A Waukegan casino, they argued, would draw new customers from over the Wisconsin border.

But in March 2004, the Gaming Board in a 4-1 vote chose Rosemont as the location for the 10th license, ignoring a staff suggestion to pick Des Plaines.

"It is the feeling of this body that a casino location in Rosemont (and owned by Isle of Capri Casino Company) would produce the most revenue," Elzie Higginbottom, then chairman of the Gaming Board, said at the time. The Isle of Capri Casino Company was to pay the state $518 million for the license. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, though, lobbed accusations of mob ties against Rosemont casino investors, calling into question their fitness to run a gambling facility.

Officials fought back.

"You show me the mob in Rosemont," then-Mayor Don Stephens said. "(And) I will resign immediately."

But, in 2005, the Gaming Board voted to revoke the license, after retired Judge Abner Mikva led hearings and concluded investors in the proposed casino hadn't told the truth about the casino. He also cited allegations of organized crime involvement made by the FBI.

In another round of bidding several years later, Rosemont was a finalist once again, along with Waukegan and Des Plaines.

Then, in late December 2008, Illinois Gaming Board members picked Des Plaines by a 3-1-1 vote, with one member voting for Waukegan and another contending all three bidders should be rejected.

Board members made clear that Des Plaines and its casino company, Midwest Gaming, did not represent the highest bidder, nor the best-financed offer, nor the most economically disadvantaged host city, nor even the most employee-friendly company to make an offer.

But what it lacked in those attributes, the Des Plaines bid made up for in keeping its nose relatively clean over the years and providing an alternative to the tarnished image of Rosemont and a Waukegan bid that included William Cellini as an investor.

Cellini is an Illinois political power broker who at the time was under indictment in the investigation of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Cellini is expected to go on trial this fall.

So Des Plaines won the coveted 10th and final casino license.

But that elite status might not last long. The 10th casino license -- for years the biggest gambling prize in Illinois -- would have a little less luster if a massive statewide gambling expansion is approved.

The plan, approved by lawmakers in Springfield and being weighed by Gov. Pat Quinn, would create five more casino licenses and allow slot machines at the state's horse racing track, making gambling opportunities much more common in Illinois.

Among those new casinos would be one in the Waukegan area, at nearby Park City.

So far, Quinn has balked at signing the bill, and its fate is unclear.

Also competing for gamblers' attention soon will be video poker machines in bars.

Jim Blue, a Des Plaines resident and longtime gambling opponent who helped organize the 1994 referendum, calls the machines "the next arena" for that fight.

But for now, the Rivers Casino is being prepped for a series of parties and events to celebrate its opening on Monday.

Rosemont spokesman Gary Mack said Mayor Bradley Stephens, son of Don Stephens, who died in 2007, didn't want to talk about the Des Plaines casino opening.

"He's happy for Des Plaines," Mack said. "This is their day."

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