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Editorial: The time is right for a Chicago casino

Updated: June 19, 2011 12:31AM

It’s time to roll the dice.

Chicago is broke and casino gambling already is a reality in Illinois — just not in Chicago.

It’s time, in these last weeks of the Illinois General Assembly’s spring session, to push through a bill that provides for a casino in Chicago, and it’s time for Gov. Quinn to get on board.

Quinn’s understandable lack of enthusiasm for expanding legalized gambling was a significant factor in the failure of a major expansion bill in January. The governor called that bill, which would have allowed for a casino in Chicago and four more new casinos in the suburbs and downstate, “top-heavy” And it was.

For our part, we also objected at the time to pushing through such a controversial measure during a lame-duck session of the Legislature when many of those voting for the bill would have had nothing to lose because they were leaving office.

But now, four months later, we see no better time.

Chicago has a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who is impatient as all get-out to fix the city’s public schools, make dangerous neighborhoods safe and create more jobs, and none of that will happen without more money. Revenue from a city-owned casino, which Emanuel has expressed interest in, would help reduce the city’s deficit, which stands at $1.2 billion after factoring in unfunded pension liabilities.

The big casino being contemplated would bring the city an estimated local revenue share of $300 million to $400 million, create some 2,000 jobs and have a ripple effect on hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

The extra money also would be welcome by Illinois officials struggling to balance the state’s budget. Legislators are contemplating savage cuts to funding for schools and social services. Quinn told us Tuesday that he is “open to discussing proposals” that raise revenue, create jobs and lead to greater investment in schools.

Our preference would be for a gambling expansion bill that provides for a casino in Chicago and slot machines at the state’s six racetracks, the “racinos” being the necessary trade-off to get legislative support Downstate for the casino. Proposals for new casinos elsewhere — specifically north suburban Park City and the south suburbs — would be put on hold.

We have long supported in concept a casino for Chicago, with caveats. It would have to be located where it naturally draws the tourist trade, not Joe Blow from down the block gambling away his rent money. The Illinois Gaming Board would have to have a strong say in the casino’s operations to fend off organized crime. And the city’s “take” would have to be large.

More generally, a casino in Chicago should be integrated into a larger master plan for growing Chicago’s economy, not viewed as a silver-bullet solution.

Two weeks may seem like a short time frame in which to push through a gaming expansion bill, but the proposal has been in the works for more than decade. Earlier efforts to pass a bill have been done in by public ambivalence, as reflected in Quinn’s cool reception, and by opposition from current casino operators.

We’re sympathetic to the argument that a Chicago casino would cut into the profits of other Illinois casinos — of course it would. But Chicago is the economic engine for the entire metropolitan region. As the city goes, for that matter, so goes Illinois. And much of the money that would be spent at a Chicago casino is going across the border to Indiana.

A recent Associated Press story quoted a Chicago man who said he gambles at a casino in Gary because it doesn’t ban smoking.

Maybe. But we suspect that this Chicago man does not do his gambling in Chicago because there is no casino in Chicago.

Let’s shorten his commute.

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