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Casino coming to Southern Illinois

  • Walker's Bluff owners Cynde and Dave Bunch celebrate in the Tasting Room on Saturday night, after the Illinois House passed the gaming bill and moved it to the Senate.

    Walker's Bluff owners Cynde and Dave Bunch celebrate in the Tasting Room on Saturday night, after the Illinois House passed the gaming bill and moved it to the Senate.
    Holly Kee photo

  • A Sara Evans concert in June 2018 drew about 2,000 people to Walker's Bluff, one of the events Cynde Bunch has held to demonstrate that the facility could be a regional destination.

    A Sara Evans concert in June 2018 drew about 2,000 people to Walker's Bluff, one of the events Cynde Bunch has held to demonstrate that the facility could be a regional destination.
    Holly Kee photo

 
BY HOLLY KEE
Staff Writer hkee@blocalsouthernnews.com
updated: 6/6/2019 11:16 AM

WILLIAMSON COUNTY -- Call her tenacious, determined, persevering, unrelenting or just downright stubborn, but Cynde Bunch's dogged pursuit of legislation that would enable the construction of a resort at Walker's Bluff has paid off.

When the Illinois General Assembly adjourned a historic session on Sunday evening, it delivered a host of bills to the desk of first-term Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker for signature. Senate Bill 690 includes the gaming license for Walker's Bluff, and five other locations statewide.

"It's been eight years," Bunch said Sunday in the Tasting Room of Walker's Bluff, where she and her husband, Dave, and friends waited for the final vote from the Illinois Senate, "three governors and lobbyists working very, very hard every day."

This isn't just a win for Bunch and Walker's Bluff -- she estimates that turning Walkers Bluff into a full-scale destination resort will create 1,200 construction jobs and another 900 full-time jobs when completed.

The $175 million, privately-funded Resort at Walker's Bluff would include two hotels, a full-scale concert and convention center, an indoor water park, restaurants and the casino.

Bunch has remained dedicated, arguing their research validates their confidence that bringing a destination resort to southern Illinois will dramatically enhance the local and regional economy, and, as a result, the overall quality of life.

"It's not just for Williamson County," she added, "it's a destination point for all of southern Illinois."

Six new casinos, along with legalized sports betting, are coming to Illinois. Senate Bill 690, sponsored by Lake County Democratic Sen. Terry Link, passed the Senate 46-10 vote on Sunday, after being approved by House lawmakers on Saturday. Pritzker has already announced his intention to sign it into law.

The six new casinos will be at Walker's Bluff in Williamson County, Danville, Rockford, downtown Chicago, Waukegan and the south suburbs of Chicago.

Link estimated that gambling expansion along with other revenue-raising measures in the bill could net Illinois more than $12 billion in the next six years.

"This key piece of legislation really is going to make an economic difference of keeping our dollars home," he said, adding he expects "thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in construction across the state."

Casinos, race tracks and sports facilities that seat more than 17,000 people -- such as Wrigley Field and the United Center in Chicago -- would also be eligible to buy sports betting licenses under the bill, making Illinois one of about a dozen states to legalize the practice after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year allowed it.

Revenues raised from the new casinos, the selling of sports betting licenses, and a higher tax on video gambling machines would go toward funding the vertical components of a long-term capital infrastructure plan, such as state building renovations. Sports betting licenses would range from $3.2 million to $20 million and be offered to both brick-and-mortar facilities and to online operators, with taxes of 15 percent.

Under the bill, race tracks in the state would be able to install slot machines and table games, turning them into racinos. A pilot program will also assess sports betting through the Illinois Lottery, a plan that was considered but dropped by lawmakers earlier in the session.

Here in southern Illinois, legislators got behind the push for a casino license for Walkers Bluff. State Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) spoke to her colleagues on behalf of the bill prior to the vote.

"The one thing that my district asks of me every time I speak to someone," she said, "is please, please, please bring us jobs. We need to land this plane."

State Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg), a vocal proponent of the project, met with other legislators and labor leaders in Springfield last week, working to get the bill passed.

"This would be an economic catalyst for the region and southern Illinois," said Fowler in a post on his senatorial Facebook page, "creating jobs and opportunities in the district."

State Rep. Dave Severin (R-Benton) also worked to secure the license.

"This is something that will be beneficial to not just Walker's Bluff and Williamson County, but all of southern Illinois," he said before the Senate vote. "It will bring people here. I'm proud to be a part of that."

Bunch is eager for Pritzker to sign the bill and is ready to move forward.

"Tuesday," she said with a grin. "We'll start on Tuesday."

Although he has 30 days to act, Pritzker is expected to sign the bill in short order.

On Monday, the governor weighed in with his thoughts, leaving little doubt his sentiment.

"Legalizing sports betting and expanding gaming will create jobs up and down the state, from Rockford to Chicago to Walker's Bluff, where communities hungry for employment will see 10,000 new jobs," he said.

"After the Supreme Court legalized sports betting, I promised the people of Illinois that sports wagering would be a key element of my legislative agenda, so that we are competitive with our neighboring states and can create more revenue for communities around Illinois."

• The news service Capital News Illinois also contributed to this report.