Illinois governor vows to beat Beloit to a casino

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BELOIT - To beat Beloit to a casino.

That's the objective Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker laid out Monday following a news conference in Rockford celebrating state investments in the area and a gaming expansion bill that includes the City of Rockford's bid to open a casino.

"We're going to do everything possible to help Rockford beat Beloit and attract casino-goers from across the border," Pritzker said.

Rockford has been granted a casino license thanks to the expansion bill signed by Pritzker on June 28. According to a timeline announced by Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara, the city will issue a request for proposals for the project this week that are due back to the city by July 31, followed by an executive review of developer proposals and then recommendation to the Rockford City Council by the end of August. A public hearing would then be held in September, followed by the council certifying a proposal this fall. An application is due to the Illinois Gaming Board before Oct. 25, according to the timeline. Before a license can be issued, an impact study must be completed.

The city also recently hired attorney Roberta Holzwarth to run point on the project's legal issues and working through details of the gaming expansion bill that could allow multiple proposals be sent to the state gaming board.

Rockford is operating on a one-to-two-year timeline for opening its casino. The city has considered the former site of the Clocktower Inn on East State Street, which is privately owned.

Just 18 miles north in Beloit, the Ho-Chunk Nation's plan to bring a $405 million casino and resort to the area is currently at the mercy of federal bureaucracy. For nearly two decades, efforts have been in the works to bring a casino to Beloit, with major steps coming in the last two years. Stakeholders say it's the closest a plan has ever come to fruition.

On May 31, the tribe received word from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that a final environmental impact statement for the 72-acre development adjacent to the I-39/90 Welcome Center had been published. A final decision on the scope of the tribe's project is expected this month. The decision by BIA, if favorable, would then head to Gov. Tony Evers for review and a final decision.

Ho-Chunk Legislature Public Relations Officer Ryan Greendeer said the tribe has not been notified by BIA regarding the plan.

Greendeer said even if a Rockford casino opens before Ho-Chunk's, the "pure scope of our project will be more prominent." The tribe's plan includes a 300-room hotel, water park, convention center and a retail shopping component, aimed at being a premier entertainment destination for the region.

He added that the tribe believes that even if Rockford opened a casino, both developments could profit.

"Governor Pritzker has a responsibility to the people of Illinois just the same as Governor Evers to Wisconsinites, President WhiteEagle to the Ho-Chunk Nation, and President Trump to Americans," Greendeer said. "If Rockford begins construction or operations before we can gain our necessary approvals, we will continue to plan for an eventual nod from the BIA and Governor Evers."

Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther said the city is focused on the Ho-Chunk development, and that the tribe's plan would be "so much more than a casino," calling it an entertainment destination.

"Rockford's proposed project is not near the scale of the entertainment destination proposed in Beloit," Luther said. "Even if they were to break ground first, I do not anticipate their project posing a threat to the Ho-Chunk Nation's successes."

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