Rivers delays Des Plaines casino expansion project due to COVID-19

The owner of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines is postponing plans for an expansion of the gambling establishment - the state's most lucrative, until it was forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen on Thursday announced the decision to delay the expansion at Rivers, along with many of the other casino and racetrack properties the company owns, until the company gets a better gauge at how the COVID-19 pandemic affects the economy.

"These projects are on hold," Carstanjen said during a quarterly earnings call with investors. "We expect to resume those. We expect to pick 'em back up. We expect a return to a growth trajectory for this company that is similar to what we've done over the last number of years.

"But we have to do so prudently. We don't have a crystal ball either and COVID-19 is something that nobody's seen in several generations."

Churchill, which obtained a 61% stake in Rivers just over a year ago, had been drawing up plans for a casino expansion that would have room for more slots, table games, related amenities and an on-site hotel.

Already, construction is 90% complete on expansion of the five-story, 1,550-space parking garage, adding 750 more spaces. Carstanjen said that's paused for now, too, but the company will reevaluate starting back up since it's so far along.

The new garage along River Road is seen as a prerequisite to the larger building addition that would house 670 new gambling positions, as permitted under Illinois' massive gambling legislation approved last year.

Already, the casino added 130 new positions within its footprint, as allowed under the law. That included 115 slot machines on the skywalk from the garage to the casino and near the front entrance, and eight new table games.

Rivers was among the first Illinois casinos to suspend operations in mid-March - a closure that was later extended by orders of the Illinois Gaming Board and Gov. J.B. Pritzker. By mid-April, the casino had furloughed 1,442 of its 1,493 employees, while cutting the pay of those who remain.

Carstanjen said he's optimistic the company's gambling properties will be able to reopen soon, but it's ultimately up to state and local authorities.

On Wednesday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear gave Churchill permission to reopen the stables at its namesake racetrack in Louisville, ahead of a spring meet that would take place without fans.

There was no mention of Arlington International Racecourse - the Arlington Heights-based track controlled by Churchill - during the conference call Thursday. Arlington President Tony Petrillo told members of the Illinois Racing Board last week that it could be June or later when the track is able to reopen, while the village health department continues to vet the safety of opening the backstretch.

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