The two hundred or so guests who welcomed Gov. J.B. Pritzker to Walker's Bluff Tuesday morning walked away with one lesson -- never give up.
It's been a journey of nearly a decade since Walker's Bluff owner Cynde Bunch started on her journey to create a destination resort on the land adjoining the popular stop on the southern Illinois Wine Trail, land that was once farmed by her great-grandparents.
On Tuesday, Pritzker made it official, signing the new Illinois gaming bill, paving the way for a casino license that will be at the heart of the multimillion dollar destination resort.
"I know you've been working for this day for seven years," Pritzker told Bunch. "Your persistence has paid off for you and for so many people who will be employed here at Walker's Bluff."
State Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg) and state Rep. Dave Severin (R-Benton) worked hard to pass the needed legislation.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster," said Fowler, who said he feared there would be a last-minute hang-up before the bill was signed off by the Illinis legislature.
Pritzker, a Democrat, commended the southern Illinois legislators, all Republican, for "walking across the aisle" to get the needed support for the project. This happened, he said, "because of your commitment to this project and your articulation of it."
Fowler noted Bunch's "tenacity" in never giving up, bringing busloads of supporters from southern Illinois to Springfield on multiple occasions to support the proposed project.
Pritzker said he believes the Walker's Bluff project will be a gateway to more economic development in southern Illinois, including many projects that will be funded through his "Rebuild Illinois" program.
"I told you we would revitalize this region and we're doing it," he said, noting that the casino authorization will quadruple the number of permanent jobs at the resort as well as provide funding for local education facilities from early childhood through the universities.
Pritzker said the passage of the gaming bill as well as his capital works bill would have been impossible without bipartisan support.
"After years of passing the buck, Democrats and Republicans came together to say 'enough is enough' and passed the largest and most robust capital plan in the state's history," he said.
Former congressman Glenn Poshard called the project a "win/win" for southern Illinois. "If this can't boost tourism, I don't know what will," he said. "I've got to think there will be thousands of people coming in here."
Severin said he is excited at the opportunities for the region.
"Southern Illinois had a seat at the table and areas of the state that have been ignored for too long are finally going to benefit from state investments and projects like the one at Walker's Bluff. Today is a turning point for Southern Illinois and for the economy of the state of Illinois overall."
State Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) was also among the southern Illinois legislative block that supported the casino project. "The vision for this project is that it will provide a destination site in the Midwest right here at our black door," she said. "I'm happy to support the project now and as we move forward."
Several area mayors were among the 200 or so guests at the event.
Herrin Mayor Steve Frattini said that just the jobs will be an economic boon for the people of his town. "They'll increase their spending," he said. "They'll have more disposable income."
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said he expects the same. "Even though we're a distance away, I think there will be jobs for a lot of our citizens," he said. "There will all kinds of jobs out here."
Alongi said he expects other area casinos in Metropolis, Cape Girardeau, and even St. Louis to "ramp up their marketing," but is confident that Bunch put the Resort at Walker's Bluff in the forefront. "Cynde always does a good job. It seems like everything she touches turns to gold."
As for Bunch, her tenacity has paid off.
"As a native Southern Illinoisan, I understand how deeply beneficial a destination resort will be for residents and visitors to this area," she said. "I was born and raised here, and so I know the full extent of the need -- and how precisely The Resort at Walker's Bluff will address every opportunity for businesses and our people."
Bunch said the next step is waiting on the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to complete the new rules and send out the applications.
She is looking at Labor Day for the initial groundbreaking.
"We have 15 months after that to complete the first phase," she said, noting that her construction contract calls for an 11-month completion time. However, she said realistically, it will probably take the 15 months to get everything in place.
The entire project is expected to stretch over five years.
When completed, The Resort at Walker's Bluff will include two hotels, a casino, new restaurants, an indoor/outdoor water park, a multipurpose entertainment and convention center, and deluxe spa facilities.
According to projections from a consultant, The Resort at Walker's Bluff could eventually contribute up to $15 million in local annual revenue, $34 million in local employment, $42 million in labor income, 1,250 construction jobs, and 726 permanent jobs.