Gorman: Downtown Rockford Casino Proposal in the Works

ROCKFORD — Wisconsin-based Gorman & Company Inc. is in talks with several potential partners to submit a bid to develop a riverfront casino on 13 acres south of the downtown Embassy Suites Hotel and Rockford Conference Center that the company is developing.

Gorman & Company Chairman Gary Gorman confirmed Monday his company has an option under contract to purchase property south of the hotel where he envisions developing an entertainment complex and casino linked by pedestrian walkways to the hotel and to a train station that would bring in thousands of visitors from Chicagoland. Gorman said he is in talks with five casino operators that have expressed interest.

“There is all kinds of academic data that shows that casinos are most successful when part of an integrated entertainment, restaurant and activity district, creating a critical mass,” Gorman said. “They are less successful when they are out on an island.”

The casino bid that Gorman pledges to make is likely to intensify a simmering debate over the benefits of a downtown casino complex for job creation and economic development versus an east side location that is more accessible via Interstate 90 for gamblers with deep pockets living in wealthy communities like McHenry and other northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin counties.

Hard Rock International is, so far, the only casino operator that has expressed a desire to bid for a city casino license that’s up for grabs. The company has said it plans to propose a casino at the old Clock Tower Resort site at East State Street and I-90.

Municipal leaders in Machesney Park and Loves Park, which would share in a portion of Rockford’s casino tax revenue, have said they’d prefer that Rockford plant a casino close to I-90 because they feel that’s where a casino would generate the most revenue and taxes to be shared among Illinois and local governments.

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara has said that no formal proposals have been submitted, much less selected. The mayor said he’s eager to hear more viable proposals.

Rockford plans to initiate a vetting and negotiation process after a 2 p.m. Aug. 16 proposal deadline. A public hearing is scheduled Sept. 23 to gather input on the proposals before City Council forwards a certified recommendation — or recommendations — to the Illinois Gaming Board in late October.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, has long backed a casino near the I-90 corridor, believing the city would be leaving millions on the table if it were to select a site downtown or elsewhere. And he argues that casinos have generated welcome tax revenue, but little, if any, economic development in other Illinois cities.

Syverson said the city should pick a site that will maximize gaming and tax revenue from visitor spending.

“Casinos are destination points where people go and they game, they eat at the facility, they get back in their cars and they go,” Syverson said.

Gorman acknowledged Hard Rock made an early splash with its star-powered announcement featuring Rockford native and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, one of several business partners pitching the Clock Tower site for a casino development.

However, Gorman said, the city will consider other factors besides location when it comes to Rockford’s casino license. Those other considerations include job creation, a synergy offered by a riverfront casino near a downtown hotel, in addition to a $275 million earmark in the state’s capital plan — fueled in part by new casino revenue — for re-establishing train service between Rockford and Chicago.

“It’s important to look at the macro-economic picture in terms of what this casino will do for the city,” Gorman said. “We can make a compelling case that a downtown casino as part of an overall entertainment and restaurant complex will do more for the city than something out on the highway.”

Jeff Kolkey: 815-987-1374;; @jeffkolkey