DANVILLE – There were many in the city, including Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. when he first ran for mayor in 2011 and lost, who thought the city would never get a casino.
“I thought it probably would (happen),” said former state legislator and alderman Bill Black. “Nothing ever dies in government. It can go to sleep. It can hibernate.
"It’s always kicked around, and finally the stars aligned,” Black said. “It was a long, long struggle.”
Just last month, Black wrote a requested letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker stating the importance of a casino to Danville today, and “what I had discussed more than 10 years ago was still pretty much the case.”
A casino is “a game changer” for the turnaround of Danville, state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, said about the expected $6 million in annual revenue, jobs and tourism expected locally.
“I think people will come and you’ll see a ripple effect,” he said about people spending money here at restaurants, motels and when shopping. “There’s an entertainment value there.”
Scott said Vermilion County already has its natural beauty and sites that draw people here, but add a casino and it can make Danville and the county an “absolute destination.”
On Sunday, after more than a 20-year wait, and a more dedicated effort during the last 14 years in which local officials pushed for a casino here, the Illinois Senate approved a gambling expansion bill that included a casino license for Danville.
Senate Bill 690, sponsored by Indian Creek Democratic Sen. Terry Link, passed with a 46-10 Senate vote after being approved by the House on Saturday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker already has announced his intention to sign it into law.
“We are very excited about it,” Bennett said, who has been pushing for it himself since 2015.
“There’s a lot of people that came in,” he said about all those who have testified and worked to see this through. Vermilion County Chairman Board Larry Baughn also testified this year.
Prior to Bennett and state Rep. Mike Marron, R- Fithian, working on it, former legislators Black, Chad Hays and Mike Frerichs also have been involved with the support over the years in Springfield.
“The main thing I think is jobs,” Bennett said about what this means for Danville.
Estimates show up to 400 construction jobs to build the casino and possibly 700 to 800 permanent jobs to operate it.
This will allow “some stability and some economic opportunities in the Danville area,” Bennett said of the good-paying jobs. “Certainly there is going to be a tourism component.”
A casino will be different than the video gaming terminals in businesses, Bennett added, saying people will come to the casino from other communities.
“We want to get money from outside of Vermilion County …,” he said about capturing money from Indiana residents. The casino can help keep Illinois money here and bring in outside money, he said. “It will ease the tax burden of Vermilion County residents.”
After steps were taken for Terre Haute, Ind., to get a casino license, the urgency also increased, for a casino license for Danville. The Indiana General Assembly passed a gambling expansion bill earlier this year. It allows for a casino to move to Terre Haute, if voters approve the proposal. That vote is expected as early as this fall.
Bennett said East Peoria casino representatives “put on a good push to get Danville out of the bill.” They claimed it will hurt that casino with Champaign County gamblers now headed to East Peoria turning to Danville instead.
Bennett said he spoke with Williams early in the session about a coalition of community support for a casino of the city, business leaders, labor groups and others. Bennett also said there’s no question that former Mayor Scott Eisenhauer was a force behind this. Bennett said he had Eisenhauer testify three to four times since he became a senator.
Eisenhauer pushed for a Danville casino for about 15 years.
“Mayor Eisenhauer deserves a lot of the credit,” Bennett said.
History and Location
Eisenhauer, now village administrator in Rantoul, said he became a little emotional during the weekend when a casino was finally becoming a reality for Danville. He said he’s “excited, overjoyed and thrilled at what this will mean for Danville and for Vermilion County.”
He also said “I am disappointed that this didn’t happen at a time when I would be involved in bringing it to reality, but am very happy to have played a small role in bringing new jobs and new revenue to my hometown.”
Bringing it to reality will be the job of the current administration.
The first conversations about a casino in Danville started in the 1990s when the Riverboat Gambling Act was enacted in February 1990. After becoming mayor in 2003, Eisenhauer’s then more serious conversations started in 2004. The conversations ramped up with Lou Mervis funding a market study, Eisenhauer said. Then the real dedicated effort with legislators started in 2005.
During a special meeting in June 2007, the Danville City Council voted 9-1 in favor of a resolution urging Illinois General Assembly members proposing an expansion of gaming licenses to include one license for Danville. Four aldermen were absent that night. Former Ward 1 Alderman Tommie Reed voted against it due to his and other ministers’ religious beliefs and also because of the negative side of gambling affecting people.
The resolution urged then state Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-Gifford, and then state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, to “support any reasonable gaming expansion bill that includes one license for the geographical area of the city of Danville.”
Eisenhauer said when the Senate vote was taken on Sunday, he thought about the legislators, Mervis and Mervis' investment and the local labor leaders who’ve also made the numerous trips to Springfield and who worked through the years on bringing a casino to Danville. He said there were so many people, spending time and energy on this for almost two decades; and it all came together with two quick votes and now the expected support of Pritzker.
If Pritzker signs the bill this week, casino arrangements then could start locally and with state involvement.
Eisenhauer suggests Williams will want to put together a group to go through the language of the bill to look at obligations and restrictions. There had been previous language a temporary casino could operate prior to the permanent one being opened. A local committee also could come together to work with developers.
There had been seven different developers interested in building a casino here in the past, also with some options on land. It’s unknown how many are still interested. The city and developer will choose the site.
Eisenhauer said this should be city driven because of any city expense with needed infrastructure.
The land-based casino doesn’t have to be on the water, such as downtown on the riverfront area.
In 2007, 37-2 Capital Corp. of Edwardsville purchased more than 22 acres of land along the Vermilion River near Interstate 74 and Perrysville Road for the possibility of a riverboat casino. The corporation still owns the land, and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Uram, a former Argosy Gaming Co. officer, said about the Danville market in light of a Terre Haute, Ind., casino also expected, “while it’s still a very nice market, it’s narrower in scope.”
Uram said the casino size and investment that would occur today would be less than might have occurred five to seven years ago.
“It’s still a very viable market,” he said about a Danville casino.
Black said he’s sure the casino will be land-based, and he thinks the best location is as close to the Indiana border, where land available. He said the casino business has been damaged by video gambling terminals, and somebody will have to invest millions of dollars for the casino.
“I’m not sure the projections are as rosy as they once were, but who knows,” Black added.
In addition to about $6 million in annual revenue projected from the casino facility itself, more revenue is expected through sales tax, liquor tax, hotel/motel and food and beverage taxes.
Cost sharing of the casino revenue discussed in the past: 50 percent to the city, 20 percent to school districts in Vermilion County (based on student population) 20 percent to municipalities in Vermilion County (based on population) and 2.5 percent each to Danville Area Community College, Danville Area Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, Vermilion County and Vermilion Advantage.
Officials in the past said it could take up to 12 months to find a developer and another 12 to complete construction on a casino.
The Illinois Gaming Board will accept developer applications, prior to a final selection. Bennett said the application fee is $250,000, and he hopes there will be several interested investors.
There also is a $1,750 one-time fee for every gaming position, he said. The casino could have up to 2,000 positions, meaning slot machines or seats at gaming tables. Bennett said a developer could build a smaller casino and not pay as much in gaming position fees.
In an email response to media on Monday, Williams stated “I will respond to the news of Danville receiving a casino license at (tonight’s) city council meeting during my report …”
In January, when the fate of expanded gambling in Illinois remained unknown, Williams said he thinks it could be “very good for the economy for Danville” if a casino would ever come here.