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Easy Money/Worst-Kept Secret

Isn't it time the government got in on the surest bet around?

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Easy Money

I was sitting around worrying the other day about who's going to end up with the Rosemont casino license, feeling bad for mayor-for-life Donald Stephens and those folks who invested in a sure thing but are now crying their eyes out just to get their money back, when a strange idea popped into my head. I never would have thought of it except that the owners of all those other riverboats were getting so crabby about taxes, even taxes that kick in only after they've grossed $200 million per single casino per year. With taxes like these, they were saying, no one will want the Rosemont license, and that's when I started thinking hey, that wouldn't be so bad. Maybe the state could hang on to it, pay a gaming company a small percentage to run the casino, and keep a much bigger share of the profit--say 95 percent.

No one likes the idea of putting the government in the "sin" business, but as a serious objection this qualm lost its teeth with the advent of Lotto. Ditto for concerns that the state wouldn't know how to run a casino (hire pros, watch 'em like hawks) or that it would increase government corruption (we're talking Cook County here, right?). The observation that there's no precedent for a government-owned casino in the United States is true only if you're willing to overlook Ho-Chunk and hundreds of other tribal-owned gambling venues. And beyond our borders there are plenty of models.

The Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario, for example, own casinos and use their proceeds for community projects or donate it to charity. In Ontario, where the government has hired professional operators, the province collects 20 percent of gross revenue and 100 percent of net profit.

A Cook County casino could be the most profitable in the state, probably outearning even Elgin's Grand Victoria, which had revenues of $417 million last year. University of Nevada professor William Thompson, author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society, says profits in a location like Rosemont will be limited only by the size of the facility. "Right now Illinois has a 1,200-gaming-spots limit for each casino license," he says, which means "Rosemont might have 20 or 30 tables and a thousand machines." What will essentially be a monopoly casino--it'll be the one most accessible to Chicago's dense population--is likely to be constantly full, but not necessarily with a better mix of gamblers than the Elgin or Joliet riverboats. "The atmosphere is not such that you draw in the high rollers for resort experiences," Thompson says. "Generally, boats don't bring in the players that bet $10,000 a hand." (To meet the letter of the law, the Rosemont casino--miles from any natural waterway--would sit in the middle of a man-made lake.) Thompson estimates that 80 percent of revenue will come from the slot machines, and the players will come from nearby communities. A study he conducted in Illinois showed that the most frequent gamblers at riverboats were people who lived in the depressed areas nearby. As for the idea that a casino close to O'Hare Airport will grab dollars from tourists passing through, Thompson says, "It's absurd. Nobody's going to fly to a riverboat, and nobody at an airport for changeover is going to leave the airport [to go to a riverboat]. They'll hook a bunch of people that live ten miles away."

"Casinos bring addiction, bankruptcy, crime, and corruption," says Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Grey believes a state-owned casino would be an expansion of the government's role and would "cost any politician votes." But Illinois senator Patrick O'Malley says "you could eliminate a lot of the issues here by getting [the gaming companies] out of the business. An argument could easily be made that if we're going to be in the business, we should make sure the citizens of the state maximize whatever benefits can be derived from these licenses. There's a lot of feet that are going to be stepped on in the process, a lot of people who've made a lot of money. But I would suggest it's time for them to move on. How much more money do they need to take out of our pockets? I'm not for expansion of gambling nor, frankly, for the continued legalization of it, but . . . making it an institution similar to the lottery could diminish its role. If it was state run, there'd be no [gambling industry] contributions made to legislators or people in the administration, there would be no funds available for lobbying efforts, and therefore I think we would have a much more frank discussion about whether or not the continued legalization of gambling in this state, in any of its forms, is appropriate."

Worst-Kept Secret

"I wish I could say it was marketing genius," says Second City producer Kelly Leonard of the buzz created by his hush-hush new offering at the Black Orchid. Leonard has attempted to keep Second City's Improv All-Stars, a totally improvised revue (with six seasoned actors and a three-piece band made up of improv vets), out of the weekend listings and off the radar so it can be used to capture Second City's Saturday-night overflow audiences. Tickets are a bargain $12 for each of the two shows (at 8 and 11), but don't try to book them in advance. According to Leonard: "We don't sell 'em until our main stage and E.T.C. sell out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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