John Beninati isn’t a gambler.
But the longtime Danville resident said he’s excited a casino may finally be coming to town after a nearly two-decades-long effort by local and state leaders to land a license.
“Danville needs the revenue and the employment,” said Beninati, who’d likely go “once or twice to see what it looks like.”
On June 3, the casino was a hot topic of conversation at the Hardee’s on Fairchild Street, where Beninati was drinking coffee with a handful of other retirees and discussing the measures that came out of the spring legislative session.
Over the weekend, first the Illinois House and then the Senate approved a comprehensive capital plan to create jobs and modernize the state’s infrastructure that’s tied to legislation that would bring a long-awaited casino to Danville. It’s now awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature.
However, Vermilion County Board Chairman Larry Baughn didn’t hold back his enthusiasm. He and other supporters were in Springfield in May to lobby for the casino.
“I don’t think any of us thought it would go through this spring,” the Hoopeston Republican said, calling the bipartisan approval “a wonderful surprise.”
“We’ve been trying to bring a casino to Danville for years,” said state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, referring to former Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, former state Reps. Bill Black and Chad Hays and former state Sen. Mike Frerichs and current leaders, among others. “I’m thrilled we finally have that chance.”
Both Bennett and Baughn said they see a tremendous opportunity to generate revenue for Danville and the county, create jobs — including about 400 construction jobs — and boost the local economy.
“It’s going to have an enormous impact,” agreed Jeanie Cooke, executive director of the Danville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Visitors don’t just go to the casino,” Cooke continued. “They go to gas stations, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Someone might say, ‘My husband wants to go to the casino, but I want to see the antique shops and what kind of shopping they have here.’”
“Danville and Vermilion County have a lot to offer that people outside the county don’t get to see every day,” Baughn added. “We’re excited to show them that.”
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So why after numerous attempts was this gambling policy change successful?
Bennett pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a year ago that overturned a federal ban on sports betting and opened the door for more states to pursue legalization.
“In the beginning of the session, the governor made it very clear he wanted to adopt sports betting, but he didn’t mention casinos,” said Bennett, who immediately began working on getting a Danville license included in the bill.
He said he and more than two dozen other senators sent the governor a letter letting him know they wouldn’t vote for a standalone sports-betting bill.
“It was trying to craft the right balance for everybody,” Bennett said of coming up with a proposal that regulates sports betting, allows for existing riverboat casinos to become land-based and authorizes six new casinos — also in Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford, the South Cook County suburbs and Williamson County in southern Illinois.
And, Bennett said, this year’s capital bill would largely be funded by the sale of licenses for casinos, racetracks and sports-betting operators, “which kept others at the table.”
“The really fortunate thing was the timing,” Bennett continued, pointing out that Indiana is poised to give a casino license to Terre Haute, just an hour’s drive from Danville.
A Terre Haute spokeswoman said Vigo County (Ind.) voters must first approve a casino in a referendum, which could be held in November or next spring.
“If we’d waited three more years, you’d have a very hard time getting an investor in Danville,” Bennett said. “That’s why it was really now or never, and that’s why we pushed really hard for this.”
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The senator believes Pritzker, who was involved in the negotiations, will act on the legislation pretty quickly. But that doesn’t mean Danville will land a casino project as quickly.
Bennett said city officials will have to find a developer willing to work with them and invest the millions of dollars in fees and project costs.
Eisenhauer, now Rantoul’s village administrator, said he met with seven different developers over his 16 years as Danville mayor, identified various potential sites and discussed what, if any, additional infrastructure was needed “to any development that would be beneficial for both the developer and the city.”
Eisenhauer said the legislation’s passage on Sunday stirred a lot of emotions.
“I was excited, elated and overjoyed for the community,” said Eisenhauer, who spent countless hours meeting with potential developers, legislators, governors’ staffers and others and testifying before different committees on getting a casino.
“I am disappointed that this didn’t happen at a time when I would be involved in bringing it to reality, but very happy to have played a small role in bringing new jobs and new revenue to my hometown.”
Vicki Haugen, president and CEO of Vermilion Advantage, said there are still interested parties.
“Vermilion Advantage and the city will work with investors that have the financial resources and the expertise in developing this type of facility/business,” she said via email.
“Those who are going to make the investment will guide where the best opportunity for success will be,” Haugen said, adding “this will be a process moving forward with many players and many moving parts. All indications in previous feasibility studies demonstrated there would be spin-off economic development benefit. As those are confirmed, I’m sure there will be a lot of public discussion about this process.”