Rivers Casino $87 million expansion unanimously approved by city council; awaits gaming board nod

After filing plans with the City of Des Plaines and Illinois Gaming Board last month, on Monday night, Rivers Casino Des Plaines received the green light from the City Council for its proposed $87 million expansion.

Construction could reportedly begin as early as this spring at the U.S. midwestern state‘s most lucrative casino but still needs regulatory approval from the Illinois Gaming Board. And while a vote has yet to be scheduled, Rivers spokesman Dennis Culloton said the project “is in front of them,” according to the Daily Herald newspaper.

Project plans:

Jointly owned by Louisville, Kentucky-based gambling giant Churchill Downs Incorporated (Nasdaq: CHDN) and Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming, if approved, the 10-year-old gambling venue will see a two-story addition built between the existing 140,363 sq ft casino building and the recently enlarged four-level parking garage located on the north side of the 20-acre Cook County property.

Plans for the 78,000 sq ft expansion include the addition of approximately 725 gaming positions, which would make it the first to house the state’s maximum of 2,000, according to Churchill Downs February 17 press release, along with a second-floor 24-table poker room. City documents indicate that ground-level gambling space for slots and table games would increase by 33,000 square feet, as reported by the current source. The first floor of the addition will house a new restaurant and a 10,000 sq ft event center will host private events and live entertainment on the second floor.

Expansion timeline:

If approved by the Gaming Board, construction could begin this spring and take about a year to complete, with ground-level spaces set to welcome patrons in January next year to be followed by second-story areas in March. The casino’s doors will reportedly remain open throughout construction.

To set the expansion project in motion, the Des Plaines City Council reportedly delivered a unanimous vote in favor of requested changes to development plans for the venue that originally opened in 2011 as Illinois’ tenth and final riverboat casino.

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According to the Daily Herald, prior to the Monday night vote, the proposal was lauded by 6th Ward Alderman Malcolm Chester as being “great for us and the city,” while Alderman Carla Brookman acknowledged River’s owners and management for their support of community projects in addition to injecting city coffers with millions of dollars in gambling revenue.

Enabling legislation:

A law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on June 28, 2019, authorized a massive expansion of casino gaming in Illinois, including six new casinos, with one each in the cities of Chicago, Danville, Waukegan, Rockford, Williamson County and the Cook County townships, as well as allowing up to 2,000 gaming positions at existing casinos. Exceptions are Chicago, which would be able to operate up to 4,000 positions (collectively including positions at the casino and at airports) and Williamson County, which is permitted up to 1,200 positions.

According to Culloton, not long after the law was passed, some gaming positions were added by the Des Plaines casino.

Initially, the expansion plan calls for a 70 percent increase (260) in table game positions and a 48 percent increase (439) in slot game positions, according to the February press release. Also, under the current plan, the casino will have 26 additional gaming positions for future allocation. In June 2021, Rivers will pay the State of Illinois $24 million in gaming position licensing fees.

Arlington sale:

While Rivers Casino prepares for expansion, in nearby Arlington Heights the Arlington International Racecourse, which is also owned by Churchill Downs, is set to shut down operations permanently. The Louisville-based racing, online wagering and gaming entertainment company came to the decision to forgo plans to pursue adding casino games and instead will sell the 326-acre property, where horse racing has taken place for nearly 90 years, for redevelopment and relocate the track’s racing license to another community in Illinois.

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The decision came as no surprise after in 2019 the company declined to guarantee that they would hold racing dates beyond the 2021 calendar at the property it purchased in 2000 for a reported $71 million.

2021 commitment:

In a statement in the company’s announcement late last month, Chief Executive Officer for Churchill Downs, 7BALL CX Bill Carstenjen said the company is committed to moving the racing license to a community near the city of Chicago or somewhere else within the state.

The company will reportedly maintain Arlington’s 2021 racing season, which is set to begin April 30 and conclude Sept. 25 and is not expected to close on a sale before that.

Churchill Downs had planned to apply for a sports betting license for the Arlington racetrack, but a requirement by the state to pay additional taxes on gaming revenues to bankroll horse racing purses made casino gaming there “financially untenable,” a company official at the time, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.