Illinois Riverboat Plans On Hold

They fired up the boiler and tooted the whistle but the riverboat casino that's supposed to pour millions of dollars into Illinois racing still hasn't been able to get up a head of steam. And, after the latest setback before the Illinois Gaming Board, it appears it could be many months -- or even years -- before the boat floats.

As part of a sweeping revision of gaming and racing laws, the Illinois General Assembly in 1999 authorized Emerald Casino Inc. to move its dormant riverboat license into Cook County. The Chicago suburb of Rosemont, close to O'Hare International Airport, cut in for a piece of the action not only racing, but also surrounding suburbs, University of Illinois athletics and other interest groups. Fifteen percent of the adjusted gross receipts was earmarked by the legislation for racing.

Rosemont actually started construction of a riverboat site before questions arose about ownership of the license and the transaction was slowed by lawsuits, including one by supporters of a rival site. Eventually, at the insistence of the Gaming Board, construction was halted.

In the final weeks of January, the courts finally cleared away the legal debris. But the Gaming Board, citing questions about some of the license-holders, voted 4-1 against the transfer to Rosemont. The debate before the vote was rife with vague charges of ties between the casino project and organized crime. And a board official charged two of the shareholders in the casino license had made "false and misleading" statements to investigators.

The action leaves Emerald to file an appeal with an administrative law judge, who could recommend the Gaming Board reverse its decision. Failing that, Emerald could restructure its ownership to satisfy the board's objections or the license could be put up for bid by other groups.

Gary Mack, a spokesman for Rosemont, said the board's objections were to Emerald, not to Rosemont. He said the suburb remains confident it will host a riverboat.

Arlington Park spokesman Thom Serafin said the track also expects the situation will be resolved eventually.

"Springfield has spoken and the gaming board is doing what it ought to do," Serafin said. "We really don't have anything to do with that. We weren't counting on (the added revenue). The Legislature gave us the opportunity to run the business as a business. We've been planning the (2001) meet with the resources we had."

However, a spokesman for Sportsman's Park noted that the state's other riverboat casinos continue to benefit from the portions of the 1999 legislation that apply to them -- notably, dockside gaming, which has increased their handle dramatically. By shoring up the boats as competitors to race tracks, he said, the partially implemented law hurts racing.

Sportsman's, meanwhile, continues successful full-card simulcasting operations in preparation for the March 2 opening of the live season in Chicago. Spokesman John Brokopp said on-site handle was up 29.76 percent during the first 27 days of Sportsman's tenure as host track for simulcasting. The daily average handle was $167,205 - up from $128,861. Sportsman's has implemented a new player rewards program and made improvements to its facility in an effort to draw fans back to the track.