ROCKFORD — Hard Rock Casino Rockford presented its case on Wednesday for the Illinois Gaming Board to preliminarily find its company and $310 million casino proposal suitable for a license.
Now the city of Rockford and 815 Entertainment LLC — the company that unites local and regional investors with Hard Rock International — await the Gaming Board’s decision, expected Feb. 4.
A finding that the proposal or the company are unsuitable could derail Hard Rock’s bid to open a casino here.
Chief investor Dan Fischer, owner of Dotty’s Gambling Cafe chain, said the company was proud and humbled to have been chosen by Rockford over two other proposed casino projects that sought the city’s sole license. Fischer said working with Hard Rock International gave his company a clear advantage and access to a wealth of experience.
“The idea of a Hard Rock facility and partnership with local Rock & Roll Hall of Fame star Rick Nielsen of the band Cheap Trick creates a powerful combination that will forever ingrain the power of music, entertainment and excitement in this project,” Fischer told board members during a virtual meeting.
“The proposed site of the project is the former Clock Tower Resort. The Hard Rock brand will transform this iconic piece of property that has local historical significance, tremendous visibility and access from I-90 with nearly 70,000 cars per day.”
Plans are for a 65,000-square-foot casino, a Hard Rock Café and a 1,600-seat Hard Rock Live venue. It is expected to generate 1,200 construction jobs and up to 1,000 permanent jobs at the casino complex.
Fischer said he expects a temporary slots-only casino to open at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center within 90 days of approval while construction begins at the former Clock Tower Resort location blocks away on East State Street.
With a brand like Hard Rock — which operates 240 venues in 69 countries, including 12 casinos — Fischer said he expects the casino, restaurant and live music venue to reach potential visitors well beyond the borders of Illinois.
Fischer told the board that “more than 40% of equity capital is coming from women (and) minority persons that far exceed the statutory goals required.”
A finding that an investor or two are unsuitable is unlikely to derail the project. Hard Rock International Chief Operating Officer Jon Lucas said Hard Rock would step up to fill any financial gap. And Fischer said other investors are willing to invest more in the company as well.
Gaming Board Administrator Marcus Fruchter said that the board would meet on Feb. 4 in closed session to discuss the suitability of 815 Entertainment LLC, Hard Rock, the investors and their proposed casino. Afterward, the board plans to vote in open session.
Approval would mean overcoming a key hurdle on the path to final approval of a license, said Cezar Froelich, a partner in the Chicago law firm Taft Law who served as a consultant for Rockford.
After complying with all the regulations for applying for a license, earning a finding of preliminary suitability is the most significant step in the approval process thus far, Froelich said.
“The first big test that takes place is a preliminary finding of suitability,” Froelich said. “What that is really saying is that we have looked over your stuff, if you will, it looks like it’s compliant, we didn’t see anybody in the deal that is a bad person.”
But Froelich said there remain several more steps in the approval process. If the proposal is found suitable, Hard Rock will be required to submit a detailed plan for the operations of the temporary and permanent casino locations.
If the gaming operational plan is approved, the Gaming Board would give the company permission to proceed with construction.
Before opening, there would be a “final practice gaming session” held at the casino. The board or its staff would observe the operations of the casino to make sure it complies with state laws and standards.
If successful, a final license would be considered afterward.
How we got here
Rockford had sought state approval for a casino for decades before it finally broke through in 2019. Here is a look at what has taken place since then:
June 2019: Gov. JB Pritzker signs legislation to expand gambling in Illinois, allowing sports betting, expanding video gambling and authorizing six new casinos including one in Rockford.
July 2019: Pritzker visits Rockford to celebrate casino legislation, saying it will help fund a massive $45 billion Rebuild Illinois plan to modernize infrastructure and spur economic growth. Rockford issues a request for casino development proposals.
August 2019: Three competitors submit proposals for a casino in Rockford along with $75,000 checks for application fees. Under the gaming legislation, City Council has just two months to decide which proposal to certify and submit to the Illinois Gaming Board for licensure.
September 2019: An estimated 600 people attend a public hearing at the Coronado Performing Arts Center, where the three casino proposals are presented. A Hard Rock Casino Rockford is proposed at the former location of the Clock Tower Resort on East State Street; Gorman & Co. proposes a casino in downtown Rockford adjacent to its riverfront hotel; and Forest City Partners proposes a casino, hotel and commercial development on 136 acres off Lyford Road.
Oct. 7, 2019: City Council backs Hard Rock’s $310 million proposal for a 65,000-square-foot casino, a Hard Rock Café and a 1,600-seat Hard Rock Live venue. The proposal had been recommended by a casino review team assembled by Mayor Tom McNamara. Among other provisions, a 109-page host community agreement guarantees the city at least $7 million annually from the casino.
Oct. 24, 2019: After the Rockford Register Star issues appeals to the Illinois attorney general a denial of a Freedom of Information Act request for a list of investors, Hard Rock reveals the 53 people or entities that are backing the development proposal.
Oct. 25, 2019: Hard Rock becomes the first of six proposed new casinos in Illinois to submit an application for a license from the Illinois Gaming Board. By law, the Gaming Board has one year to grant a license or provide a written explanation as to why one was not made.
October 2020: Illinois Gaming Board announces a six-month extension to reach a decision on Rockford’s casino license, saying that the pandemic had slowed the approval process.
Jan. 27, 2021: Hard Rock becomes the first of the state’s six proposed casinos to present its case for a “preliminary suitability determination” before the Gaming Board.
Feb. 4, 2021: A determination on the Hard Rock proposal’s suitability — a key hurdle to overcome in the approval process — is expected from the Illinois Gaming Board.