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Cha-ching: New Rivers Casino opens to big crowd, horrible traffic

The gropening new Rivers Casino DesPlaines brought thousands be part history-making day.  |  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

The grand opening of the new Rivers Casino in DesPlaines brought thousands to be part of the history-making day. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 19, 2011 2:08AM

Legalized casino gambling arrived at long last in Cook County on Monday, and proof of the pent-up demand could be found in the lines both inside and outside the new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

So many people wanted to check out the new gambling palace, in fact, that casino management ended up advising potential guests to “consider delaying their visit” after the facility’s parking lots were overwhelmed and traffic was paralyzed along River Road for hours at midday.

The situation got so bad that police in the adjacent village of Rosemont — where the late-former Mayor Don Stephens was thwarted in his epic battle to host this same casino license — had to step in to help direct traffic. Rosemont police also erected barricades to keep casino patrons from sneaking into private parking lots of Rosemont businesses.

Many of those who found parking had to wait outside in Monday’s brutal heat for a chance to get into the casino, which temporarily limited entry for crowd control.

Once inside, lots of those same patrons chose to stand in another long line to get a “rewards” card that would track their bets in exchange for discounts and other benefits.

Then all they had to do was find an open gambling machine, a challenge in itself with three times more gamblers in the building than gaming positions.

If I’m making it sound like a flop, I don’t want to mislead you. While some of the people with whom I spoke were definitely disillusioned, others reasonably chalked it up to normal opening-day growing pains.

Of course, how any particular person rated their experience probably depended a great deal on whether they won or lost money.

Getting in her car afterward, Diane Gardner of Austin told me she wouldn’t be coming back after dropping $400 in the dollar slots in about 90 minutes.

“They don’t pay out,” she complained.

But Danny Eison of Blue Island was in a good mood when I found him counting his money. He was breaking even at that point.

“I’ll be coming, if I can get in,” Eison said, referring to the wait that he expects to ease up soon enough.

Most of the early arrivals were only too happy to have an opportunity to plunk down their money in what nearly everybody seems to agree is the nicest gambling facility Illinois has to offer.

Plus, it’s close — close enough that many of those I met said they will stop taking their money across the border to the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond or the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee.

Debbie, from West Allis, Wis., said she plans to start gambling in Des Plaines instead of Milwaukee.

“I’m sick of Potawatomi,” she said.

But when I asked for her last name, she declined, worried her remarks might cause her to lose her rewards points at Potawatomi.

Still, the prospect of stealing customers from out-of-state casinos is like the sound of a slot machine hitting the jackpot to state officials who have foregone the revenue from this license since the Silver Eagle riverboat in East Dubuque closed in July 1997.

In the 15 years since, efforts to move the license to Rosemont bogged down in litigation amidst allegations of organized crime influence and secret dealings involving Stephens and principals of the prior licenseholder, Emerald Casino.

Even after the Illinois Gaming Board reopened the license to bids in the summer of 2008, it took three years for Chicago real estate developer Neil Bluhm and his Midwest Gaming and Entertainment to clear regulatory hurdles and get the place open.

“We had staying power and optimism,” said Bluhm, whose own pursuit of a gambling license for this site dates back 10 years.

“It was worth the wait,” he added.

Among the notable attendees for Monday’s ribbon cutting were Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, longtime sponsor of gambling expansion bills and Rosemont’s new mayor, Bradley Stephens.

In introducing his Rosemont counterpart, Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan seemed to get in a little dig.

“I’ve got one word for Brad Stephens,” he said, “Cha-ching.”

Despite Monday’s traffic hassles, Rosemont is hoping the casino will bring extra cha-ching for its 7,000 hotel rooms and the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. But you have to believe it’s bittersweet for Stephens to see the casino open across the street from his town.

The big question in the Illinois gambling world these days is whether Gov. Pat Quinn will approve legislation that clears the way for a three-fold expansion of casino gambling in the state — including the first in Chicago.

The Des Plaines lesson is that it could be a while before we see another new casino.

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