Games of chance day at Chicago's city hall

Games of chance day at Chicago's city hall

This morning's theme at Chicago's City Hall seemed to be games of chance.

A few minutes into the 11 a.m. hour, a handful of aldermen were holed up in a council hearing room, listening to representatives of Northstar, the private entity chosen to run the Illinois lottery, describe their plans for the lotto in the city and elsewhere in Illinois.

At the same time, outside the council hearing rooms, members of the city council's black and Hispanic caucuses gathered to demand Gov. Pat Quinn sign Senate Bill 744, the gambling expansion legislation that made it through the Illinois General Assembly this spring.

The black and Hispanic caucuses are of one mind on SB 744, which would allow a casino to open in Chicago as well as four other cities around the state. Alderman Danny Solis of the 25th Ward said the council's Latino legislators were unanimous in support of building a casino here, while Alderman Howard Brookins of the South Side's 21st Ward, said he knew of no objections to the expansion among his ranks.

Council members who spoke today claim a casino in Chicago would provide a stream of money for infrastructure projects in city neighborhoods and jobs for communities ravaged by unemployment.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to build a casino and has been ratcheting up the pressure on Quinn this summer to give the city the OK to proceed; he detailed how he would spend funds from a casino earlier this month. Quinn has not said publicly if he would sign the bill or not, though a number of his comments about the expansion legislation have been skeptical.

Gambling opponents say the social costs--from addiction to more foreclosures--they expect to accompany an increase in gambling options in Chicago won't be worth the additional revenues a casino here may bring to city coffers.

Aldermen representing black and Hispanic wards insisted today that having a Chicago-based casino would not unduly hurt their communities, which have been hammered during the economic downturn of the last few years.

"We feel this will not have a detrimental impact on our constituents as relates to gaming but also bring new people, new revenue to our communities," said 28th Ward Alderman Jason Ervin.

"We presume the casino will be located somewhere near the central district," Brookins told reporters. "We doubt very seriously that there will be significant numbers of our constituents who may live closer to Hammond or Joliet will pay $30 for parking and come downtown to frequent a casino."

"That horse has left the barn. There are people that are gambling in the City of Chicago that will gamble in the city if there was a casino, [but] that tax revenue will come to City of Chicago or the State of Illinois," Solis said. "That will benefit the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois."

Over in the council hearing room, meanwhile, Northstar executives said they planned to expand the the lottery's presence, especially in the metro Chicago area.

Their goal: double lottery revenues in Illinois from the $2.2 billion it generates at present in a five-year period, returning an additional $1 billion to the state.

Northstar plans to achieve the ambitious target by expanding the network of retailers who offer lotto games; the firm's CEO, Connie O'Connor, called such an expansion "the number one lynchpin" of their business plan. A slide in Northstar's presentation projected 11,377 retailers offering lotto games by 2015, up from about 7,500 today. The ideas is to bring in new players to the lottery system, rather than trying to get current players to spend more, she said.

An investigation The Chicago Reporter published in 2002 found lottery sales concentrated in poor neighborhoods that were often majority black and Hispanic. To quote at length from that piece:

The 10 ZIP code areas with the highest lottery sales over the last six fiscal years were 60609, 60617, 60618, 60619, 60620, 60628, 60629, 60639, 60647 and 60651. They were all in Chicago and included areas across the city like South Deering, Washington Heights, Irving Park and Logan Square. Census figures showed that eight of those ZIP code areas had unemployment rates higher than the citywide average of 10 percent, and all 10 had average incomes of less than $20,000 a year, compared with a citywide average of $24,000. Census data also show that five were at least 70 percent African American and two were at least 60 percent Latino.

During this morning's committee hearing, O'Connor said the average household income of lottery players across the state in 2010 was $59,290. She also told the committee the two highest-producing areas in the city were "Chicago north and Chicago south, with the next one being suburban Chicago."

In a later interview, Tracy Owens, a spokesman for the lottery, said any lottery expansion must be undertaken in a responsible manner. "You want to be mindful of any communities that might be considered by some to be vulnerable communities," he told the Reporter. At the same time, Owens said individuals who want to play should have the chance to do so.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user MarkyBon.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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