A look at Hammons’ casino license

Eric Olson, SBJ EditorOut of the Chicago area this week comes a report on the life of John Q. Hammons and his impact on the city of Joliet.

Did you know Hammons is responsible for bringing riverboat gaming to a city southwest of Chicago?

Among his many business ventures, Hammons until the day he died held an ownership share in one of 10 Illinois riverboat casino licenses. More than that, he wrote the application that garnered Illinois Gaming Board approval in accordance with the state’s Riverboat Gambling Act enacted in 1990.

As the story goes, Hammons saved downtown Joliet from the threat of losing a chance at the casino license. Harrah’s Casino reportedly pulled out of the running days before requests for proposal were due.

“We were devastated,” recalls former city planner and councilman Don Fisher, in The Bugle article. “All the other towns had their operators lined up except us.”

In walks Hammons, who somehow got wind of Joliet’s casino crisis – as he had a knack of doing with business opportunities.

The former city official recalls his first meeting with Hammons:

“He looked like a bum,” Fisher told The Bugle. “Unshaved, and he asked a lot of questions about the city and its growth outlook.”

The story goes on:

For whatever reason, Fisher gave the guy a couple hours of his time.

Just after Harrah’s pulled out, Fisher received a large packet that turned out to contain an RFP for the downtown casino license. Several pages into it, he saw an 8-by-10 photo of the scruffy man who visited him. It turned out to be John Q. Hammons, whom Fisher learned later would go around the nation anonymously looking for development opportunities in smaller communities.

City officials say Hammons’ casino license application changed the course of downtown Joliet and helped the community climb out of a recession in the 1980s. He opened The Northern Star casino on the city’s downtown riverbank.

During its first full year of operation in 1994, the casino netted $167.5 million in gross receipts, according to Illinois Gaming Board reports.

Harrah’s quickly sought out Hammons to make a buyout offer, and negotiations resulted in Hammons securing a 20 percent cut for the duration of the license, according to The Bugle.

Today, Harrah’s Joliet Casino & Hotel employs 900, records more than $200 million in gross receipts and contributes some $77 million in state and local taxes, according to the Illinois Gaming Board’s 2012 annual report.

Hammons also built a Holiday Inn in Joliet.

“John Q. Hammons will hold a place in Joliet’s history as one of the visionaries who saw that riverboat gaming would attract thousands of people through the turnstiles,” said City Manager Tom Thanas, who worked as an attorney for Harrah’s between service with the city, in The Bugle article. “When he partnered with Harrah’s Entertainment Corp., John Q. embarked on a project that would serve as a catalyst for the revitalization of Joliet.”

More recently, Illinois legislators are debating an expansion of legalized gambling in the Land of Lincoln to help repair a crumbling state budget. The plan is expected to bring in $250 million annually, as well as $1.2 billion in one-time revenues, upon construction of five casinos across the state, including the city of Chicago, and placement of thousands of slot machines at horse racing tracks and O’Hare and Midway airports.

That’s the stuff to make Al Capone tip his fedora.

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