(ADDS KEHL QUOTES IN THIRD GRAF)
The Illinois Gaming Board unanimously approved a key change to the casino license application submitted by the Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort on Thursday, clearing the way for the group to begin construction on a permanent facility in Williamson County.
Walker’s Bluff originally submitted a revised plan to the IGB in March, but then requested that it be tabled at the agency’s April meeting. The group, which was found “preliminary suitable” to build the casino in June, last week revised its request to the state gaming agency after receiving approval of changes in its economic development plan from the Williamson County Commission, a required step before seeking approval from the IGB.
“We are very appreciative of the Illinois Gaming Board’s approval today for us to continue to move forward with our plans to build and open the permanent Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort,” said Dan Kehl, CEO of Walker’s Bluff project partner Elite Casino Resorts, via email to Sports Handle. “Our next steps are to continue to work closely with Illinois Gaming Board staff to request approval to commence construction of the resort, estimated to begin in Q4 of this year.
Williamson County was one of six locations granted a casino permit in the massive gaming expansion bill that Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law in June 2019, which also legalized sports wagering in the state. Walker’s Bluff looks to be the second-furthest along in bringing gaming to those chosen sites, with Hard Rock International having been approved in June to begin construction for a temporary casino in Rockford.
Change could accelerate casino timeline
In presenting his case to the IGB, Kehl explained it made more sense “to shelve the temporary casino and go right into the permanent casino construction,” citing the challenges in setting up the infrastructure in the rural location where the casino will be located. Prior to the vote, Kehl said Walker’s Bluff would make the request to the IGB to start construction next week if given approval, with a potential groundbreaking before the end of September and with plans to “start moving dirt in October.”
Kehl estimated an 18-month timeline for construction of the casino — which would mean a possible completion in March 2023 — but he did not want to commit to an opening date. He expressed a preference to open everything at the same time but did allow the possibility of opening the casino in phases if construction went according to plan and potentially ahead of schedule.
Kehl also said bypassing construction of the temporary casino could result in the permanent one being open approximately 15 months earlier than originally planned.
When IGB Administrator Marcus Fruchter inquired about a potential operator for the casino’s retail sportsbook — which was included in the plans — Kehl said submitting an application for a master sports wagering license “was a couple of months out yet.” He said Walker’s Bluff will “be going out to the marketplace looking for a sportsbook partner” and estimated it would take between “60 to 90 days before we come back and request that.”
Having a sportsbook partner would be a change from how Elite Casino Resorts operates sports betting in Iowa, where it runs its own sportsbooks — both retail and mobile — at Rhythm City Casino in Davenport and Riverside Casino and Golf Resort in Iowa City.
Elite also is a mobile operator in Colorado.