Midwest Gaming & Entertainment Chairman Neil Bluhm watched as thousands of people filed into Rivers Casino, the newly opened gambling and entertainment center in Des Plaines. They came in suits or jeans. All sizes, all races. Some used walkers, canes or wheelchairs. All were average Joes looking to be that one-in-a-million, shot-in-the-dark, stalking horse. They were determined to win.
Just like Bluhm, who rose from a poor family to a net worth of roughly $1.8 billion, making him No. 234 on Forbes' list of America's richest people. Despite those self-made riches, he says he feels a connection to the masses.
"I know what it's like for them," he said.
In the Rivers Casino, Bluhm, 73, finally saw the culmination of millions of dollars of expenses plus 10 years of corralling investors and bucking a tough recession that nearly T-boned his efforts. The $445 million complex opened this month to a flood of gamblers, causing traffic nightmares for the area but putting wide grins on the faces of city and state officials eager for a portion of the revenue.
Founder of JMB Realty and Walton Street Capital, Bluhm also is a major political player who supports Democratic causes. According to reports, a 49th birthday party for President Obama that Bluhm threw last August at his Chicago home brought in $30,000 per well-wisher for the Democratic National Committee.
Bluhm has donated at least $860,000 to other candidates' campaigns since 1994, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, former 8th District Congresswoman Melissa Bean of Barrington, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and now-convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Bluhm has contributed about $16,000 in campaign funds to state Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, chairman of the Illinois House Gaming Committee, and about $10,000 to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
A divorced father of three adult children, Bluhm remains close to son Andy Bluhm, who runs his own hedge fund called Delaware Street Capital; daughter Leslie Bluhm, who co-founded Chicago Cares; and daughter Meredith Bluhm-Wolf, who's involved in various philanthropic activities.
Bluhm said he also strives to give back to the community. He's donated to numerous nonprofits and research, including Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He said he's eager to make a difference now because he can, compared to when he was growing up poor in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Bluhm's father disappeared when he was 13, he said. His mother eked out a living as a bookkeeper while raising him and a sister in an apartment over a drugstore. Bluhm attended public grammar school, Von Steuben High School and the University of Illinois, graduating with a bachelor's degree in accounting. He later earned a law degree from Northwestern University.
During those early school years, he met Judd Malkin. Their friendship continued as college roommates and later as business partners and has spanned decades. While Bluhm worked as an attorney for the Chicago law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt, Malkin went into real estate.
Malkin wanted his old pal to join him. So he talked with Bluhm on the phone constantly for four months, hoping to persuade him to switch, Malkin said. It was a tough decision for Bluhm, perhaps one of the youngest partners at the prestigious law firm. He was making a steady paycheck to support a wife and three young children. But Bluhm decided to join his boyhood friend in 1970 as co-founders of JMB Realty.
"Neil had more of an entrepreneurial spirit than you'd expect for a lawyer," said Malkin, 73. "And he was persistent. ... He definitely had that fire in his belly."
By 1984, the duo bought Urban Development, a Chicago firm known for developing Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie and Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook. The friends then developed 900 N. Michigan with Bloomingdale's on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, along with other projects in Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere.
While Bluhm's real estate deals were with JMB Realty or his own Walton Street Capital, his gambling investments were part of Midwest Gaming & Entertainment, which developed casinos in Vicksburg, Miss., Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, another in Canada, and now the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
Bluhm found the Rivers Casino site, along River Road near Devon Avenue, by driving around the area and then stopping at a nearby McDonald's. The site offered about 22 acres and was near O'Hare International Airport, Rosemont's convention center, plenty of hotels and local residents.
"That was a phenomenal site," Bluhm said. "And it offered us a chance to do whatever we needed to do."
But there were at least two times along the 10-year journey where Bluhm said he felt like giving up.
One was when the economy tanked. The recession started about 2008, which caused a lot of investors to doubt whether the area could support a casino when so many people were being laid off and property values nose-dived.
"The investors didn't think we could do it at the time," Bluhm recalled. The other time was when a competing casino development plan in Rosemont had won Illinois' 10th and only available gambling license. But after Lisa Madigan lobbed accusations of mob ties against Rosemont casino investors, the Illinois Gaming Board took the license back in 2008. Another costly bidding round loomed, along with more delays. Was it all worth it? Bluhm wondered.
"I was scared to death," Bluhm said. "I had projects all over the country. The economy tanked, and I was wondering what to do."
He believed the economy would bounce back and decided to jump into the bidding process once again. He also gathered enough investors and financing to support the project.
During that time, one of his key pointmen was Greg Carlin, now chief executive officer of Rivers Casino. He also serves as a trustee on the board of JMB Realty and is involved in other casino ventures. Carlin is a longtime friend of Bluhm's son, Andy. The young men were students together at Von Stueben High School and the University of Pennsylvania.
Bluhm has "staying power," said Carlin, who attributes that to Bluhm's drive to do the next deal.
"That's his hobby, doing deals," said Carlin. "He's one of the smartest people I know."
The new casino employs about 1,200 workers and there's room for up to 2,000, if owners decide to expand with a plan that's already in hand.
Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn, who received about $500 in campaign funds from Bluhm in 1994, is considering a plan that would add a lot of competition to the Rivers Casino.
The plan, approved by lawmakers in Springfield, would create five more casino licenses and allow slot machines at the state's horse racing tracks, making gambling opportunities much more common in Illinois. "We remain neutral on that," Bluhm said. "It's up to the governor and what he wants to do."
Still, Bluhm was happy, watching the throngs file into the new casino on opening day. While he said he doesn't gamble at his own casinos, he certainly doubled down on getting the Rivers Casino built. He felt his time and investment had paid off. It was all worth it, he said.
He's now working with Malkin on developing property for offices in Century City, near Los Angeles.
"I want to keep moving forward," Bluhm said. "After all, I'm a terrible golfer, so I'll never retire."