What happens to downtown Aurora if casino moves out? It's not a bad thing, some say

If the Hollywood Casino moves out of downtown Aurora, what happens to the downtown?

A business group, a restaurant owner and an alderman say it will be fine without the Hollywood Casino. Maybe even better.

The casino has proposed moving to a site on the west side of Farnsworth Avenue on the northern edge of town. The estimated $360 million project would include a hotel, restaurants and a spa.

“It (the move) is the best thing to happen to downtown Aurora,” said Amy Morton, owner of Stolp Island Social restaurant.

Alderman Juany Garza, whose ward covers much of the downtown, isn't worried, either. She said the loss of the casino won't hurt the downtown and moving it will be good for the city overall.

“I think the casino needs to be in a new location. I think the new area is going to be more successful for the casino,” Garza said.

The history

In the late 1980s, riverboat casinos were touted as ways to revive economically distressed towns. Legislators did not want land-based casinos, so they insisted the gambling take place on boats on navigable rivers.

The Hollywood Casino opened its City of Lights I and II riverboats in Aurora in 1993. According to a 1990 Chicago Tribune article, operators and city officials thought gamblers would also patronize nearby stores, restaurants, the Paramount Theatre and several museums downtown.

Taxes on admissions and gambling proceeds were used for capital projects, social programs and economic development incentives.

In the early 2000s, the casino was allowed to put the gambling on a permanently moored structure over the water.

In 1994 the casino had 2.35 million admissions and employed 1,559 people, according to the Illinois Gaming Board. But by 2019, that dropped to 904,713 admissions and 312 employees.

At a city meeting last week, a Penn Entertainment official blamed the drop on increased opportunities to gamble elsewhere, including video gambling and the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

Penn officials believe the casino will be more successful if it's closer to I-88 near the Chicago Premium Outlets mall.

The casino's patrons don't visit downtown amenities. They drive in, gamble and go home, said Trevor Dick, the assistant director of the city's Economic Development Commission.

The mayor and other city officials declined to comment. The city's finance committee has approved the redevelopment agreement; the whole city council is now considering it.

Morton said her diners come from other towns, such as Naperville, St. Charles and Geneva, and that none to whom she has spoken have come from the casino. The casino has a steakhouse and a deli, and she believes its visitors eat there.

She said the casino didn't factor into her decision to open in downtown Aurora.

An opportunity

The downtown casino, comprising the gambling hall on the floating platform and a four-story building, would be demolished. The land would be transferred to the city in a development-ready state, Trevor Dick, assistant director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, said last week.

Morton said she has heard talk the city wants a high-rise building with apartments and stores constructed on the site.

“It is the No. 1 most prime piece of property in downtown Aurora,” Morton said. “So we would love that to be filled with residents who really care about what happens in the city of Aurora. It would be wonderful if it worked out.”

“Aurora Downtown is supportive of the casino's long-planned move from downtown,” said Marissa Amoni, manager of Aurora Downtown, a nonprofit group of downtown businesses and landowners.

Amoni said commercial and residential development in the downtown has flourished. “It's become a destination over the last decade, and we're excited to welcome new projects.”

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  The owners of Hollywood Casino are planning to move the casino from downtown Aurora to a site on the city's north side. Brian Hill/
  The Paramount Theatre in downtown Aurora was originally expected to benefit from the Hollywood Casino across the street, but casino customers largely came to gamble and go home. Brian Hill/
  The Leland Tower, right, in downtown Aurora is near the Paramount Theatre and the Hollywood Casino. Brian Hill/
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