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Elgin: No slots at the races
City officials oppose latest gambling expansion plan
By Jeffrey Gaunt | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/16/2007 11:56 PM

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The latest proposal to expand gambling in Illinois has Elgin officials on edge.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, last week backed a massive gambling expansion plan intended to bail out the Chicago area's transit system.

The proposal includes a Chicago casino, an auction for two additional casino licenses and expanded gaming at existing riverboats.

But it's an added provision to put video poker and thousands of slot machines at horse tracks, specifically Arlington Park, that has Elgin officials worried.

City officials say they don't know exactly how much they could lose in annual revenue if state lawmakers decide to add slots at Arlington Park.

But they've estimated the hit could be as much as $15 million a year.

"It would draw people from that Arlington Heights, Elk Grove, Rolling Meadows area," Elgin Assistant City Manager Sean Stegall said. "The thought is that it would cut off our business."

The Grand Victoria Casino opened in Elgin in 1994.

In the past decade alone, city officials say, the casino has pumped an estimated $250 million -- or $25 million a year -- into city coffers.

City officials have used the money on everything from big-ticket projects such as the police department, The Centre of Elgin and the Highlands of Elgin golf course, to street improvements, refurbished historic buildings and funds for social service agencies.

"The money has been used for the betterment of the community," city spokeswoman Sue Olafson said. "The council passed an ordinance that essentially said we would not use riverboat funding for operational expenses. I think they have done an excellent job with it."

Grand Victoria representatives could not be reached for comment.

But Elgin officials say they will work with the casino to determine exactly how much money is at stake as lawmakers debate expanded gaming.

"Really we're going to be heavily reliant on the Grand Victoria to do that analysis for us," Stegall said. "What part of their market is that going to affect the most? Behind the numbers are programs, people, projects. It makes it much more difficult."

That's not to say city leaders are completely opposed to gambling expansion.

Quite the opposite.

City council members last month approved a resolution in favor of expanded gambling -- provided the plan didn't put slots at racetracks and didn't include a casino close enough to draw business away from Elgin.

"Our position has always been we are not against the expansion of gambling," Stegall said. "That would be disingenuous and hypocritical. But it should be the same process Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, went through. We've been consistent on that."

City officials say they've been working with local elected officials to make sure their voice is heard.

State Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat, says he's listening.

"It's kind of like shadow boxing at this point," Noland said. "It's very difficult to land a punch and comment on what the end product is going to be. I certainly have my concerns. Some of those concerns may be allayed by the time I get (to Springfield.) But slots at the track I think are just a little bit worrisome at this point."

If and when gambling expansion comes up for a vote -- which could be as early as this week in the House -- Noland said he'll have Elgin in mind.

"I'll ask what's in it for the district," he said. "How are our interests going to be protected?"