Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rock River Valley leaders say unity is best bet for Rockford casino


ROCKFORD — Several elected officials and community leaders gathered Wednesday to talk strategy for landing a gaming casino in Rockford.

The marching orders were simple: Support a bill that names Rockford as a recipient in the next round of gaming expansion and not be baited into turf wars that can hurt the community’s chances in Springfield.

Arguments over where it would go and who gets what make the community appear divided, Rockford Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly said.
“We need to be certain we are singing the same note. Otherwise we’re all going to lose,” she said. “We can’t be worried about who’s going to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen, who called the meeting, and other leaders from area mayors to business, tourism and labor officials agreed with Thompson-Kelly, saying it’s important to present unified support for Rockford in the coming weeks.

The group will be collecting government resolutions and letters of support and delivering the message as a group to legislators in Springfield next month.

“The most important thing is having a unified message that casino gaming is one tool that we need in an overall economic development tool kit,” said Rockford tourism director John Groh. “It’s very natural to want to talk about the next steps, where would it go and how would it impact economic development patterns. Our focus needs to be, keep Rockford in the bill and pass the bill.”

Not everyone in the room agreed. Michael Solberg, senior pastor of Second Congregational Church, attended the meeting to show his opposition to a Rockford casino.

“The whole community is not in support of this,” Solberg said. “The people a casino is going to hurt are not here.”

Rockford’s chances to get a casino could be better this time around, Sen. Dave Syverson said, because of Chicago’s desire to land a casino of its own and because the bill being considered specifically names Rockford. Aggressive attacks on tourism dollars from neighboring states could make a difference as well.

A promise that gaming revenues will be spent on regional economic development efforts and infrastructure will be looked upon favorably, he said. It will help legislators and leaders in Springfield see it as more than a casino for Rockford.

“We can show the governor it’s more than just one city. It’s labor and the region, and those things can affect him,” Syverson said.

One thing that area leaders will have to have more discussions on in the weeks to come is the idea of sharing revenue from a casino.

Christiansen says he’s had agreements going back to the 1990s that if a casino ever came to town the revenue would be shared countywide.

“It was always part of the equation,” he said. “We agreed to focus on regional economic development priorities, so it’s earmarked for that kind of thing.”

Christiansen said the money could be split based on population, with Rockford receiving most of it and the county receiving a small share that it could distribute to other governments.

“That’s all everybody is looking for,” he said.

Mayor Larry Morrissey said he wasn’t part of the previous conversations but is open to discuss revenue sharing with the chairman.

“I’d like to get input from City Council members,” Morrissey said. “I wasn’t here then, and there are a lot of new faces on the County Board and City Council. ...

“I’d love to have a robust conversation on revenue sharing that includes all revenues like the public safety tax and the host fees from the landfill.”

Reach staff writer Corina Curry at or 815-987-1371 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              815-987-1371 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting