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Article updated: 6/17/2013 5:30 AM

Aurora still betting on Hollywood Casino after 20 years

By Marie Wilson

Hollywood Casino has been floating, in one way or another, on the Fox River in Aurora for 20 years, spanning at least two major pushes to revitalize the downtown of Illinois' second-largest city.

First with two equal-sized riverboats, then with one larger boat and one smaller, and since 2002 with a crescent-shaped "barge" that seems like a building but technically floats, the casino has brought $238.7 million in tax revenue to Aurora since it opened June 17, 1993.

When it debuted shortly after two casinos opened in Joliet, officials hoped it would create an infusion of tax dollars to support downtown projects and a large number of new jobs, former Mayor David Pierce says.

But while officials say the gaming tax revenue they've received is "significant," the casino's success has been tempered by lags in downtown redevelopment and economic realities that have cut into revenues and staffing.

Mayor Tom Weisner admits some who thought Hollywood would be an instant boon for downtown restaurants, shops and hotels may have been disappointed.

Hollywood Casino did not produce a golden ticket spelling immediate success for downtown, officials say. What it has done, though, is offer a consistent presence and flow of funds, allowing the city to afford more infrastructure improvements than otherwise would have been possible.

In addition, supporters say, the casino melds nicely with Aurora's efforts to turn its downtown into a cultural center focusing on arts, entertainment and dining, especially after its Center Stage opened in July 2012 with bands and performances on the gaming floor.

As the casino celebrates its 20th anniversary, Aurora officials say the decision to bring it downtown proved worth the gamble.

"There's no question the revenue infusion that's come to Aurora from the casino is very significant," Weisner says. "Overall, they have provided a lot of benefit to the community."

Initial expectations

One year after Aurora squarely rejected off-track betting, a group of investors from Pratt Hotel Corp. held numerous meetings with many of the city's civic and political leaders and persuaded the community to support a riverboat casino.

Three years after riverboat gambling was legalized in Illinois, City of Lights I and City of Lights II sailed their maiden voyages, offering four decks with 311 slot machines and 33 table games to thousands of visitors excited for what was described as the venue's "art deco elegance with hokey Hollywood glitz."

Pierce, mayor at the time, says the establishment was expected to help in three ways: by providing jobs, boosting city revenue and enlivening a struggling downtown.

Aldermen didn't get tied up in "a big battle of morality" about whether to permit gambling in their town, but rather saw the casino as an opportunity, Alderman-at-Large Bob O'Connor says.

"There was an expectation that you have increased economic activity and increased people and all things good will come from that," he says.

Unemployment in 1992 -- the year before Hollywood Casino opened -- was at 10.2 percent among the roughly 99,500 people living in Aurora at the time. The projected $1 million to $2 million the casino would pay in annual taxes was a major selling point, Pierce says.

The casino doubled that projection after its first six months, paying $2 million in taxes in 1993, according to city figures. City tax receipts from casino revenue and admissions increased from $9.2 million in 1994 to $16.2 million in 2002, helping launch a downtown redevelopment effort with infrastructure and streetscape projects.

Seven restaurants opened and construction began or was completed on two hotels between 1993 and 1995 as part of a redevelopment push aimed at making entertainment and museums the downtown's main draws.

Hollywood Casino brought in so much money that the city eventually ran out of downtown projects and spread the funds further to operations, nonprofit groups and projects throughout the city. And the gaming operation, hosting as many as 12 three-hour cruises called "gambling sessions" each day, employed as many as 1,734 people in 1995.

"On two fronts, it's been extremely successful," Pierce says now. "As it relates to the downtown redevelopment, it has not met its expectations, but on revenue and jobs, it did."

Gambling realities

The first gamblers on City of Lights I and City of Lights II paid their slot machines in coins and played on smoke-filled, slowly moving boats with low ceilings and roughly 11,000 square feet of space.

Between 1993 and today, the casino doubled the size of one of its boats, then built a 53,000-square-foot "barge" that uses ballast pumps to create stability while still technically floating, as required by Illinois casino law.

Cruises are no longer necessary, so the casino is open long hours without set "gambling sessions."

Technology has advanced, so gamblers play with tickets counting points they've earned until they cash out, and smoking has been banned. More casinos have opened, including Elgin's Grand Victoria and Des Plaines' Rivers Casino, and those changes have not all been positive for Hollywood -- or downtown Aurora.

With increased competition, taxes paid to the city fell in 2003 and 2004 from 2002's peak of $16.2 million. Some of the businesses that opened to capitalize on the casino closed and downtown redevelopment stalled until 2006 when the Seize the Future Master Plan was completed.

"As revenues got larger and larger, it came to be expected, so when things slowed down, people may have felt it wasn't as good," Pierce says.

Although tax receipts climbed to $15.4 million in 2007, another decline soon followed and that continues to today, with 2013's total of $8.9 million the second-lowest in the casino's history. As Aurora's budget has grown to $396 million in 2013, casino revenue has become a smaller chunk of total income.

Nevertheless, Hollywood officials continue to make supporting community causes a priority, General Manager Himbert Sinopoli says. The casino has donated more than $3.5 million since it opened, benefiting groups including the Aurora Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Quad County Urban League and Rebuilding Together Aurora.

"We look for ways to combine doing something in marketing with giving back to charity," says Doug Lima, vice president for marketing. "Our cast members get involved in this as well, so it's their time that they spend doing a lot of these things like Habitat for Humanity or helping with neighborhood cleanups."

Many of the casino's 600 remaining employees, called cast members to play on the Hollywood theme, are participating in an ongoing effort to serve 10,000 meals to guests at the homeless resources center Hesed House. And Lima says the casino is donating stuffed animals used in a 20th anniversary contest to Aurora police, Mooseheart Child City & School and Breaking Free, an Aurora nonprofit providing counseling services.

"They've been a good neighbor and have been helpful besides the revenue we get," Weisner says.

Betting on downtown

Hollywood Casino sees its role in downtown Aurora as that of a catalyst.

Keep the gambling experience fresh with changes like new carpeting, an upcoming front lobby renovation, and slots with names like "Invaders from the Planet Moolah," and people will come to check it out, getting a taste of downtown Aurora along the way, casino officials say.

"Our job in my mind is to get the people to come to the area and be exposed to it," Sinopoli says. "Once they're exposed to it, then those businesses that are there will get the traffic."

O'Connor, an alderman when the casino opened who remains on the council, says the prospect of economic spillover from the casino to other businesses was seen as a nice perk. In a city now home to nearly 200,000 people, such spillover "has just never happened."

One reason for that is the casino is very much a one-stop shop, offering not only gaming but also a steakhouse, buffet and deli all under one roof.

"Some people had misconceptions about what to expect and were disappointed because it doesn't produce thousands of people walking through the streets of downtown," Weisner says.

Even if many patronize only the casino on some visits, Tim Rater, president and CEO of the Aurora Civic Center Authority, says there is some cross-promotion occurring between Hollywood and the nearby Paramount Theatre.

The casino is the theater's single largest ticket-purchaser and Rater says subscriber surveys show 10 percent of Paramount patrons also visit Hollywood.

"There's a nice mix of different things to do downtown rather than just one," Rater says. "I think we have some synergy and can bring together more people downtown than we would alone."

As fusion grows between the Paramount and RiverEdge Park -- Aurora's newest entertainment venue that opened Friday along the eastern shore of the Fox River -- downtown may be taking a giant step toward becoming the entertainment district officials have long sought. City and casino officials say they expect Hollywood to be a big part of that.

"They have moved more recently to doing more live talent at the casino," Weisner says. "That certainly fits right in to what we're trying to do in the downtown."

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