GROWTH OR QUICK FIX.
It went from a city experiencing high unemployment rates and economic troubles to one of the county’s fastest growing cities. Why the major economic growth spurt?
Officials say it was a casino.
Joliet, Ill., was a city that was dependent on the manufacturing industry. In the early 1980s, the city’s unemployment rate reached 25 percent.
In an effort to revitalize cities in Illinois, state legislators decided to issue 10 licenses to economically underserved areas. The state gaming board picked the locations and Joliet was one of them.
Mayor Art Schultz took office in 1991 and the first casino was built in 1992. He describes the casino as a catalyst and the boost in the arm his city needed. The population increased from 80,000 residents in the early 1990s to about 146,000 in 2006.
Schultz said there wasn’t a lot of opposition about a casino opening up in Joliet.
“We had some downplay on it, but a majority of the people accepted it,” said Schultz.
The changes the city has seen in the last 14 years are incredible, according to Schultz.
The city generates about $3 million a month from the Empress Casino Joliet and Harrah’s Joliet Hotel and Casino.
“Some of the things we used the money for was the NIP (Neighborhood Improvement Program). We built new fire stations, new police stations, and a new minor league ballpark worth $29 million, which draws about 200,000 people a year,” said Schultz. “We have given money for education. We added new police officers, new firefighters and city employees. I can go on and on.”
Since the city started its riverboat gaming, it has given $25 million to nonprofit organizations, built a new museum, water park and library.
“It is all paid for,” Schultz said.
The city has also been able to provide a discount to senior citizens on their water rates and the statistics on crime have gone down in the last five years, according to Schultz.
Joliet Fire Chief Larry Mores said the casinos have been beneficial to not only the entire city but to the fire department.
He said, when Harrah’s casino first opened, the gambling was done on riverboats. Harrah’s hired the fire department’s paramedics to staff its boats around the clock, according to Mores.
“It allowed our personnel to work extra hours so that (the riverboats) had medical care available all the time,” he said.
Since the casinos became land-based they do not have the paramedics at their facilities. The casino runs are incorporated in the fire departments regular runs, according to Mores.
He said the casinos aren’t any more of a demand on the fire department than any other facility that has that type of entertainment and that number of people.
“It didn’t increase our runs significantly more than any other venue of that type,” said Mores.
The fire department did not have to hire additional personnel because the location of the casino was in the middle of city and the fire department already had a couple of stations that provided service to that area, he said.
The biggest benefit the fire department got from the casino was the revenue that was generated and turned over to the city. The additional revenue allowed the fire department to go ahead and purchase some much needed capital improvement items such as fire vehicles and ambulances, according to Mores.
“That has been our most significant impact from the boats being here, the revenue that has allowed us to really improve and buy more modern equipment,” he said. “They definitely have not only helped the fire department but they have really been a great source of revenue for a lot of capital improvements throughout the city. When they came to town, we had dilapidated equipment, and we no longer have the [old] equipment.”
Joliet has two casinos. The Empress Casino is located on Route 6 in an area that is described to be an industrial park. The Harrah’s casino is located in the city center.
“When they first went into Joliet, it had lost all of its economic base. They had a prison and that was about it,” said Jan L. Jones, senior vice president of communications and government relations for Harrah’s.
She said the city has used the funds from the casino to invest back in the community.
“All businesses have thrived in Joliet,” said Jones.
She said Harrah’s was welcomed in Joliet and she said the legislation was different than what is being proposed in Rhode Island.
“They approved 10 licenses and designated the cities,” said Jones. “The legislature determined cities, and then the gaming board selected operators. These were all dying cities.”
Harrah’s Joliet Hotel and Casino has 203 hotel rooms, 43,000 square feet of casino space with 1,200 machines, three full-size restaurants, and a food court area. There are about 200,000 and 250,000 visitors to the hotel and casino, according to Jones.
“It’s pretty amazing. We have always said that we underestimated the potential,” she said. The casino generates about $30 million a month with almost $400 million a year in revenue.
“We funded the two gaming properties in Joliet, built their baseball stadium and the Chicago racetrack,” said Jones. She said the casino also funded the city’s “whole downtown redevelopment.”