A local casino on the way, in a state already awash in gambling

Take your pick. Or perhaps I should say, place your bets.

Where should the long-awaited south suburban casino be built? 

Homewood and East Hazel Crest, on Halsted Street just south of Interstate 80? Lynwood, on Glenwood Dyer Road just off I-394? Calumet City, adjacent to River Oaks Center? Matteson, on the northeast corner of U.S. Route 30 and Harlem Avenue? Or Crestwood, on Cal-Sag Road east of Cicero Avenue?

Are your palms sweating at the thought of bigtime gambling at a casino that’s all our own?

Even if it’s 20 years too late? 

In the last month, we have seen the unveiling of five plans in five locations, all accompanied by artist renderings of gambling palaces with attached hotels and entertainment venues. Every one of them, of course, accompanied by facts and figures showing why this location deserves a license from the Illinois Gaming Board.

Let me put my cards on the table. I don’t like gambling and I’m not impressed by any of this.

I don’t expect to ever set foot in a south suburban casino, regardless of where it’s built. I think gambling is a terrible way for governments to raise tax revenue. And I am old enough to remember when slot machines were not considered an acceptable form of entertainment, but rather illegal devices reputedly located in the backrooms of sleazy drinking establishments. That wasn’t so long ago.

I have spent exactly two hours in an Illinois casino since riverboat gambling was legalized in 1990. I wanted to write a newspaper column on the casino experience and drove to one of the Joliet locations for a 7 a.m. cruise. In the early 1990s, gambling boats actually left the dock for an unmemorable trip down the Des Plaines River. 

I brought along $10 and lost it in the first 15 minutes. After that, I just looked at my fellow travelers and tried to make sense of the situation. It didn’t look like anyone was having a good time and, overall, I think as my time on the boat as two of the saddest, dullest hours in my lifetime.

Since then, I have watched gambling become mainstream entertainment and a perfectly acceptable way to spend your time and money. But I’ve never approved.

And, for the last 25 years, there has always been a cry for a south suburban casino, in large part because the gambling joints in Northwest Indiana attract so many residents from our side of the state line.

Finally, our time has come. The Illinois General Assembly, in its infinite wisdom, this year created six new casino licenses across the state, including one for the South Suburbs. 

Like I said, place your bets. 

I’ve been told that the Homewood-East Hazel Crest site is the best location because it is right off I-80, the nation’s busiest highway. I am told that the casino will attract drivers on I-80, who will exit at Halsted for a gaming respite before continuing on their journey.

And this is my response. Whenever I drive on I-80, the experience is akin to having someone hit me repeatedly on the head with a ballpeen hammer. I only want to be done with the trip as soon as possible, and I certainly am not looking for a break during which I can throw my money away.

All the proposed sites have their pluses and minuses, I suppose. In the end, the Gaming Board will make its choice and a new casino will open in a couple of years. It will, however, open in a completely different gambling landscape than what was in place when every other Illinois casino made its debut.

Traffic at our state’s gambling palaces has been shrinking for years, according to a report issued in September by the Commission on Government Forecasting & Accountability, a bipartisan legislative support service agency responsible for advising the Illinois General Assembly on economic and fiscal policy issues.

Since the 2012 fiscal year, the report says, adjusted gross receipts (AGR) from Illinois casinos, in total, have declined 17.9 per cent, including a falloff of 2.9 percent in the 2019 fiscal year, which ended in June. Admission figures have performed even worse, declining nearly 36 percent since 2012, including a 5.9 decline in 2019.

Revenue from state casinos peaked in 2005 – that year, $699 million was generated. This year, that number stands at $269 million.

Of the state’s 10 casinos, only one – Rivers Casino in Des Plaines – is currently showing an increase in AGR in recent years.

“While this casino is up 4.4 percent over the last five years, all of the other nine casinos experienced declines during this time span with eight of the nine experiencing double digit losses,” the report says.

The biggest reason for the current decline, the report says, is the introduction of video gaming in 2013. As of this June, there were 32,032 video gaming terminals in Illinois. That number is expected to climb to 35,000 sometime in 2020.

“For example, there were 12,642 video gaming terminals in the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area in FY 2019, which is the equivalency of adding over 10 casinos (each with 1,200 gaming positions) to this region,” the report says.

It’s obvious that small-potatoes gambling operations located in bars, truck stops and suburban strip malls deserve more respect. They may have names like “Flossie’s” or “Josie’s,” which might make you think there is a kindly old lady on the premises who brings cookies to the patrons playing the poker machines. But these modest places have completely up-ended the state’s casino business. In the 2019 fiscal year, which ended in June, state revenues from video gaming totaled $365 million, surpassing the numbers from casinos by $96 million.  

When the totals from casinos and video gaming are combined, revenues have increased, the report says.

Casinos are no longer the only game in town. Far from it, and our south suburban casino will face challenges that weren’t there before. For better or worse, Illinois is already awash in gambling.

At this point, I will go out on a giant limb and say that I believe that the target audience for casinos is getting older every day, which also might be a reason why admissions have dropped in recent years. To survive, casinos will have to attract younger people. From what I can tell, casino gambling is not among the top priorities for young people. I found an article at the Yale Tribune saying that millennials, when surveyed, have indicated little interest in gambling. One reason is that the basic casino model has not changed very much in the last 30 years and millennials are not satisfied with “the same old thing.”

I took an informal survey of this age group – I talked to my three sons — and asked if they know anyone who goes to casinos. The answer was a unanimous “no.”

“Young people already have lots of their own recreation,” one of them said.

Here’s what I think.

Rather than going for the same old thing in an over-saturated gambling landscape, how about looking toward the future with an attraction that attracts the young and hip. From time to time, I read about e-sports arenas that attract thousands of young people to video gaming events. I am not talking gambling here, just young people playing games that they first experienced on Xbox consoles in their basement. It is turning into a genuinely big thing.

I think it would be a much better use of that land at 174th and Halsted.

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