ROCKFORD — One of the operators Wisconsin-based Gorman & Co. had courted to run a casino on land south of its downtown hotel dropped out this week as political pressure mounted for a location along Interstate 90.
Gorman Illinois Market President Ron Clewer said the potential operator, which he would not name, was spooked by the Winnebago County Economic Development Committee's consideration of a resolution calling for an I-90 location. There remain two strong operators interested in the downtown location, but Clewer said the situation illustrates how important it is for advocates of a downtown locale to be heard.
"There has been some concern based on the rhetoric," Clewer said Wednesday. "The coverage of the County Board resolution jarred one this morning that's not at the table anymore out of concern that the politics in the community are a foregone conclusion for the east side."
Mayor Tom McNamara said no proposals have been formally submitted, and he said that all proposals will get fair consideration by the City Council. The deadline to submit a proposal for the city's casino license is 2 p.m. Aug. 30. Rockford then must negotiate the best deal it can with the potential operators and submit one or more proposals by Oct. 25 to the Illinois Gaming Board for approval.
"It's good to have the discussions, but it's premature because no one has seen the proposals," McNamara said.
Still, the campaign to bring a Hard Rock Casino Rockford to East State Street is only intensifying.
Hard Rock International celebrated Rockford Day in style by opening an information center at 308 W. State St., the former location of Kryptonite and most recently Capital House downtown, with Cheap Trick lead guitarist Rick Nielsen and his famous family playing host.
Hard Rock Casino Rockford T-shirts and stickers were distributed to an enthusiastic crowd. The office will serve as a focal point for information about the proposal, potential employment and vendor opportunities.
"This is going to be an amazing project," said Nielsen, adding that a Hard Rock Casino would draw tourists, generate hundreds of jobs and make Rockford a destination. "When you think about the things that have and have not happened in Rockford, we would love to have this happen."
Loves Park City Council and the Machesney Park Village Board — which along with Rockford and Winnebago County will share a slice of local casino tax revenue — in July approved resolutions supporting a casino location along the I-90 corridor.
The Winnebago County Economic Development Committee is expected to consider a similar resolution next week after delaying a vote Tuesday. The delay was to gather more information about what the county can expect as its estimated share of tax revenue. Clewer said Gorman hopes an operator is selected for the downtown location and is heard by the committee before it makes a decision on the resolution.
Winnebago County Board Member John Butitta, R-8, said the resolution would not back the Hard Rock proposal itself, but would back a casino along the I-90 corridor.
Butitta said he likes the idea of a Hard Rock complex that would include a Hard Rock Cafe in addition to a casino and would be in proximity to about a dozen hotels. Plans are for the Hard Rock to eventually add a hotel to the complex in future phases.
"I think the Hard Rock would bring more people than just gamblers," Butitta said.
Committee Chairman Jas Bilich, R-20, said that like Loves Park and Machesney Park officials, committee members feel a casino location along the I-90 corridor would maximize potential revenue. He said no downtown casino advocates or potential operators have contacted him about speaking to the committee. He said that although the decision is up to the city and the state Gaming Board, the committee should speak up for what it thinks is best for the community.
But Stacy Bernardi, downtown advocate and spokeswoman for the Rock River West Casino Group, said it is inappropriate for governing bodies to weigh in before the City Council's review process has been allowed to work.
She argues a downtown location with a Rockford Aquarium, entertainment complex and river walk could meet more of the city's criteria by promoting redevelopment and giving working class people better access to new jobs.
"It's not just ours or over there, there could be other operators looking that have chosen to be quiet," Bernardi said. "It places an unfair advantage on it. All we can do is trust that the City Council will disregard the endorsements and concentrate on the criteria in the request for proposals."
Jeff Kolkey: 815-987-1374; email@example.com; @jeffkolkey