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Carterville casino moves closer to reality

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SPRINGFIELD — Walker's Bluff Casino & Resort in Carterville is a step closer to reality. 

The Illinois Gaming Board voted Wednesday to grant a determination of "preliminary suitability" for the project, a crucial step forward in the licensing process.

It comes as Walker's Bluff officials and organized labor expressed confidence that a project-labor agreement for construction of the $150 million complex could be signed soon, a necessity due to legislation signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday. 

The proposed facility, which would be built and operated by Iowa-based Elite Casino Resorts, would include a casino with 650 slots and 20 table games, a sportsbook, a 116-room hotel that includes a pool and spa, an events center for weddings and meetings and several restaurants. 

Walker's Bluff was one of six locations authorized under the state's 2019 gaming expansion legislation. To this point, the only other location to receive preliminary approval is Rockford.

Mo Hyder, an Elite official involved with the development, labeled it "a monumental day" for Southern Illinois. 

"We are very excited to bring a beautiful resort to Southern Illinois and we're certainly going to build something that the entire community is going to be very proud of," Hyder said. "It's going to be an economic engine that's definitely going to create jobs and, of course, an opportunity to engage a lot of businesses in the local area."

A finding of preliminary suitability is not final licensure, but allows Walker's Bluff officials to move forward with laying the groundwork that could lead to shovels in the ground. 

"Our goal is to start as expeditiously as possible in the interest of all parties involved," Hyder said. "So we will follow the gaming board's guidance on what their specific requirements are in terms of what they need for us to submit to them and when and what approvals are necessary in order to get the process started."

It's a major step albeit a delayed one. Gaming officials in October 2020 pushed back a vote at least six months, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Another factor with the potential to derail the project is the lack of a project-labor agreement for the casino's construction. 

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A project-labor agreement is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement between a contractor and building trade unions that covers all terms and conditions of employment on a specific project.

Perhaps hoping to nudge negotiations along, state lawmakers approved legislation last month requiring that all casino applicants enter into a PLA when seeking a new or renewed license. It was signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday. 

"The whole initiative of this is to ensure that Southern Illinois people have an opportunity to go to work and to be able to build this resort, which was advocated from the initial stages," said state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, the bill's sponsor. 

With it now law, pending casino applicants have 30 days to show evidence of a signed PLA in place. 

Walker's Bluff stakeholders and organized labor have been negotiating for months to reach a PLA and have indicated one is not far down the pike. 

"It's one of the things we need to comply with as part of the licensing as well once that becomes a rule," Hyder said. "So we will comply with the requirement of ensuring that we have a PLA in place in time to meet all the specific criteria to start construction."

Clint Walker, president of the Egyptian Building and Construction Trades Council, added that "at the end of the day, we had some good meetings and hopefully get this thing signed and get going here soon."

Hyder said that once awarded a casino license, the group would commence with construction of a temporary casino that'd have about 400 slots and some table games. It'd be open about nine months after the license is awarded.

Once the temporary facility is built, construction would begin on the permanent facility, which would take about 15 months to complete.

The temporary casino would then be converted into the complex's events venue for weddings and meetings once the permanent facility is open. 

The project could lead to more than 1,000 construction jobs.  

"We've been struggling in Southern Illinois with good-paying jobs," Fowler said. "And so these are not only good-paying jobs, this is going to be a world class resort, and it needs to be built with Southern Illinois labor."


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