City all in on Haven Gaming as casino operator

Haven Gaming revealed its plans Tuesday night for a casino in Danville. The project will start with the center section of the complex shown, with additions made in the future.

DANVILLE – D-Vegas has been a long-running nickname used by some residents for Danville, it being the opposite of a bright lights big city.

Now after a 30-year wait for a casino, Danville is living up to that nickname and could be called that by a lot more people. The casino renderings of Haven Gaming LLC’s casino resort and entertainment center is reminiscent of a Las Vegas-style property.

The Danville City Council voted 12-0, with Ward 4 Alderman Mike O’Kane absent and a vacant Ward 1 seat at the start of the meeting Tuesday night to accept the casino steering-committee’s recommendation of Haven Gaming as the casino operating partner. Haven Gaming is a team of about seven people with more than a century of gaming experience combined with casinos, for example in Joliet, Michigan City, Ind., and in California.

The proposed casino will have 1,250 slot machines, 40 gaming tables and also sports betting lounges and bars, a 2,500 seat entertainment venue, conference/banquet center, 300-seat buffet, a boutique hotel and rooftop spa/salon, pool and lazy river, celebrity-style restaurants and other amenities. There also will be waterfall and other outside features.

The casino could increase to the maximum 2,000 slot machine seats.

The starter, or temporary, casino could be up and running in 2020, depending how soon the Illinois Gaming Board acts after receiving casino license applications at the end of this month. The starter casino would have about 500 slot machines and 10-20 table games.

There would be three phases of development: Phase 1 would include the starter casino and one to two restaurants, bar and initial parking. The second phase would be the full casino, buffet, up to about three restaurants and additional parking. The third phase would include the hotel, spa, pool and expo/convention center.

It could take three to four years, depending on weather, for all three phases.

A fourth phase, not guaranteed for across the street, would be a Top Golf-type facility, premium outlet mall and bowling and billiards area, Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. said. That is not a focus right now, Haven representatives said.

Just phase 1 is estimated to cost $118 million, according to Williams about the hundreds of millions of dollars in investment expected.

About 400 construction jobs are expected, with local union workers being used. With all three phases, about 1,000 jobs, the majority being full-time, are expected.

Community benefits to Danville, to be paid by Haven Gaming, would be $1 million each upfront for an addition to the Boys and Girls Club, city hall and municipal buildings improvements and also the riverfront.

Annual benefits: $50,000 each for Vermilion Advantage membership, the Fischer Theatre, city public safety support and Danville Area Community College scholarships. The city also would receive 4 percent of the casino resorts' annual revenue after taxes paid which could be about $1.5 to $2 million a year.

“It’s a game-changer for the city,” Williams said.

Haven Gaming Team

The first team member of Haven to speak Tuesday night was former state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.

Lang is a 32-year legislator who fought for the additional casino licenses in Illinois. He left his legislative seat in January and joined a lobbying firm. Lang is helping with the regulatory requirements, said fellow Haven member and gaming attorney Scott Sypolt who lives in the Chicago area on the Wisconsin border.

Lang talked about being considered “a chief expert on gaming” in the state and working with former representatives Bill Black and Chad Hays and others to keep Danville in the state gaming bills.

“It wasn’t always easy,” Lang said, but said Danville needs the shot in the arm of jobs, economic development and revenue. “It’s about the future of Danville.”

Hays said the project looks “magnificent” and he said people like Lang kept their word.

Two of the team members, Bill Bembenek of San Diego, Calif., a University of Illinois graduate and who has family locally, and Sypolt already have been looking at houses to move to Danville to operate the casino.

Sypolt has experience representing Indian Tribe gaming. Bembenek's vexperience includes being the assistant general manager and Chief Executive Officer with the Pala Casino Spa and Resort in California, director of slot operations with the Blue Chip Casino Hotel Spa in Michigan City, Ind. and director of slot operations with the Empress Casino Joliet.

Bembenek already is licensed in Illinois and has a level 1 gaming license.

Other team members include Head Engineer Will Matzek and Trish Sieh with Kimley-Horn civil engineers. They have experience with the current Las Vegas Raiders football stadium project.

Haven Gaming, which had been called Ciela Gaming before additional financial backers and new partners, is taken from one of Sypolt’s six children.

“We assembled the best of the best,” Sypolt said about their team. “This is our dream team.”

He said they also have a lot of contacts from all their experience, such as for entertainers, like Tony Bennett, and various restaurants, such as a Lebanese and other celebrity-type restaurants.

They also know some restaurants local residents have continued to ask for, such as Cracker Barrel, would now have the numbers for them to work in the Lynch Road market area.

They specifically sought a Danville casino license because of the city’s location, beauty and people, Sypolt said, adding that this would be a casino project to call their own. They looked at the I-74 corridor market, from about the Bloomington-Normal area and down to Decatur and to Indianapolis.

Bembenek said just that area includes about 2.4 million people in the potential market area. There’s about 30,000 cars that also travel this area of the interstate daily.

They said the city, including Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. and Vermilion Advantage’s Vicki Haugen, have been great to work with.

They are ready to go in and start construction as soon as the Illinois Gaming Board would approve its license.

“This is going to be an experience,” Sypolt said, about the Las Vegas-style shows, restaurants, spa, shopping and gaming being a destination. People will continue to come back. “We are going to create what you call a wow experience.”

“That’s what we’re going to bring to Danville,” he said.

They said this will be more than just a casino, with about 10 businesses operating under one roof. It’s a new evolution of gaming and a multi-level experience.

On a Saturday, they said, the casino resort could attract around 10,000 people.

Ward 6 Alderman Aaron Troglia said this casino resort is more expansive than he thought it’d be. He said it’d be twice the size of Peoria’s casino. He also asked about the projected $230 million in projected revenue, which the city could see up toward $13 million a year in revenue.

The casino resort also is expected to attract other development in the Lynch Road area.

A name has yet to be selected for the Danville casino and resort, with Sypolt saying they want public feedback and they may have a naming contest.

A steering committee of city, economic development and business representatives made the recommendation of Haven Gaming after narrowing down its selection from three.

Haven is a newly-formed corporation made up of seven members with more than 20 years each of casino experience, according to Williams.

“They have developed and operated a number of other casinos,” Williams said.

“It will be like a resort area,” Williams said of the casino site being at Southgate, south of Interstate 74 at Lynch Road.

Sypolt said there is nothing like it in the Midwest area.

“It will be a Las Vegas-style casino resort,” he said, adding that the facility also will have stone and wood accents to tie into the area.

“You waited 30 years,” he said about the area waiting for a casino. “We plan to do it right.”

He said it will be something of which Danville and Vermilion County can be proud.

Sypolt said they know not everyone wants to gamble. They will bring in top-notch entertainment and work with the Fischer Theatre to have entertainment there too.

They said downtown Danville will see a resurgence too, but without all the traffic congestion. The space and infrastructure isn’t there downtown, the team said. They said the Southgate site should last for the next 100 years. Shuttles and other partnerships with the downtown are expected.

Ward 7 Alderman Bob Iverson said downtown isn’t being forgotten about and will see the benefits. He said he couldn’t believe in the decades of casino talk that this night was finally taking place.

Ward 7 Alderman Steve Foster said he was impressed with the presentation.

"This is completely not what I expected," he said. "You can't build something like this downtown. I am thrilled."

The casino operating partner the city didn’t chose was Mille Lacs Corp. Ventures, the business arm of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in East Central Minnesota. Gaming and hospitality are two of their lines of business, and they operate two casinos in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. It had plans for a 1,000-seat casino with 32 table games, buffet, grab and go restaurant, coffee house restaurant and another restaurant.

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