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DANVILLE — For the past seven years, combined revenues from Illinois’ 10 casinos have declined annually, with only one posting increases — the River Casino in Des Plaines, the newest in the state.

Despite that downward trend, Haven Gaming LLC officials say they’re confident in their gross revenue projections of $230 million a year for a proposed Danville casino, which would feature about 1,800 slots and 40 table games.

That’s their conservative estimate. The aggressive estimate? Nearly $250 million.

And that doesn’t include the great unknown — how much Illinois’ newly legalized sports betting could bring in. (Haven officials have estimated gross revenue of $21.7 million a year but elected not to include that figure in first-year calculations).

Neighboring Indiana just launched online sports betting statewide on Thursday, joining several other states diving into a gambling sector that up until recently was only legal in Nevada.

Across the country, there’s no lack of examples of actual revenues from newly-built casinos falling well below projections.

But Haven officials assured Danville aldermen last week, just before the city council unanimously chose them as Danville’s casino operating partners, that their overall revenue projections are attainable for the “destination casino resort” they’re planning to build along Interstate 74 on the Illinois-Indiana border.

The estimated three-year buildout will eventually include a hotel, more restaurants, pools and an entertainment venue and convention center.

Total project cost: $232 million, according to Haven’s draft budget worksheet.

UI grad’s vision: ‘Not a casino’ but rather ‘about 10 businesses operating under one roof’

What it planned for Danville is entirely different than the first Illinois casino that Haven CEO Bill Bembenek helped open decades ago in Chicagoland.

“Things have evolved dramatically since then, and what I mean by that, consumers, particularly casinogoers, demand more from a casino experience. This is more than just the typical casino experience,” said Bembenek, a San Diego resident who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1992 and immediately went to work as director of slot operations at what was then known as the Empress Casino Joliet.

“A gaming venture like this is not a casino,” Bembenek said of the one being planned for Danville. “It’s about 10 businesses operating under one roof.”

Attorney Scott Sypolt, a Haven Gaming associate who had a hand in opening the largest Native American casinos in California and Oklahoma, said the company believes the Midwest is missing a full-scale, high-quality casino resort experience.

“The diamond is Danville,” he said.

In their nearly 40-page proposal, Haven officials describe the casino prospects within their Danville designated market area — a 120-mile radius — as “excellent.”

Haven’s competition for the Danville bid — Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, which operates casinos in Minnesota — also thought there’s “sufficient demand within a 60-minute drive to provide an excellent local base of business,” with the largest market opportunity being the 60- to 90-minute drive time band, particularly in the northwest suburbs of Indianapolis.

Mille Locs officials estimated a Danville casino having the potential to deliver $100 million in gross gambling revenue a year, with 1,000 slots, 40 table games and four food and beverage outlets. They did not propose a hotel or other amenities of a resort-style development, however.

Professor: ‘They will probably, even without marketing, attract quite a few students’

Haven officials emphasized the 2.4 million residents with easy access along the I-74 corridor — from Bloomington-Normal to Indianapolis — as well as no major competing casinos within a two-hour drive and an average of 30,000 vehicles a day passing by the exit for their chosen site.

In interviews with News-Gazette Media, Haven officials also talked about the vision for a resort-style casino — with a hotel, spa, pools and multiple restaurants — and its ability to attract both families and individuals. And they touted the impact that sports gambling could have, particularly among people in the 21-to-31 age range.

UI Professor Emeritus John Kindt said sports gambling is the crack cocaine on steroids for young people.

“They will probably, even without marketing, attract quite a few students,” said Kindt, who has spent years researching the socioeconomics of gambling and has debated the negative impacts more than once with former state Rep. Lou Lang, one of Haven Gaming’s partners.

When casinos first opened in Illinois in the 1990s, Kindt said, there was an unwritten rule that no club on the UI campus could sponsor or be involved with a bus trip to casinos. But now, he said, businesses have brought slot machines right to the students — in the form of video gambling terminals.

Next, he said, there will be mobile gambling via cellphone. Sports gambling, electronic gambling and young people are known as the trifecta of gambling addiction, Kindt said, noting that the addiction rate among young people — generally from junior high students to 30 years old — is 3 to 4 percent of the entire population. For adults older than 30, it’s 1.5 to 2 percent.

Furthermore, another 10 percent of the younger population group shows problematic gambling issues, he said.

“All of this is totally opposed to everything we teach. Why get a job? Get rich quick. Why get an education? Get rich quick,” he said. “Students think they’re bullet-proof. They think they’re gonna win.

“We need to increase funding to high school and college math departments. There’s no way you can win. Statistically, you can’t win. ... Long-term, statistically, it’s impossible to win, so all of this gambling is a tax on students who are bad at math.”

Report: ‘After being a ‘leader’ for years in this region, Illinois’ status has fallen over time’

But Haven’s proposal reflects a broad demographic as the target audience. The Indiana racinos, they note in their proposal, do “not consistently draw a broader demographic, including families, females and younger adults that a casino resort destination would attract.”

They also mentioned the 304 small gambling establishments in a market area that hosts 1,520 video gambling terminals, which pull in $1.1 billion in amount played annually.

“These numbers demonstrate a strong, well-established demand for gaming in the DMA,” Haven’s proposal states.

In fact, that’s the only surging sector of gambling in Illinois, according to the 2019 report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

That report reveals that Illinois’ casino revenue has not only fallen, it’s now lagging behind its Midwestern neighbors.

“After being a ‘leader’ for years in this region, Illinois’ status has fallen over time” since 2011, the report states.

The addition of a Des Plaines casino in 2012 gave Illinois a temporary boost over Iowa. But in the last fiscal year, Illinois casinos’ adjusted gross revenue ($1.34 billion) was fourth in the Midwest, behind Indiana ($2.11 billion), Missouri ($1.73 billion) and Iowa ($1.45 billion).

Video gambling continues to grow here, however, both in positions and revenue, pulling in more than $1.59 billion in net terminal income last fiscal year.

From 7,920 terminals across Illinois in 2013 to just over 32,000 this past fiscal year, the commission report notes that video gambling has yet to plateau in Illinois and is expected to surpass 35,000 terminals next year.

Haven proposal: Customers favor ‘larger variety of slots and food options’ over smaller sites

Haven Gaming officials don’t seem worried about the continued proliferation of video gambling.

“Gaming studies show that people will consistently choose a casino environment with a larger variety of slots and food options over the smaller gaming establishments,” they write in their Danville development proposal.

It highlights some perceived advantages Haven’s development would have over its nearest casino and racino competitors:

— A new, modern facility compared to a 20-plus-year-old Hoosier Park northwest of Indianapolis and the nearly 30-year-old Par-A-Dice in East Peoria. The Indiana Grand southwest of Indianapolis is 10 years old, while Tropicana Evansville is much older but was updated in 2017.

— Neither of the Indianapolis-area casinos — Hoosier Park and Indiana Grand — have live table games, which Haven officials say appeal to a “significant portion” of the gambling population.

— For western Indiana residents in search of an alternative, the Danville resort casino would be more attractive than the Indianapolis-area racinos on the northeast and southeast sides of that city, Haven’s proposal notes.

Attorney Scott Sypolt, one of the Haven Gaming partners, said officials drove to competitors’ sites in the Indianapolis area and realized it takes western Indiana residents as long, if not longer, to get there as it does to drive to Danville.

The days are gone, he added, when you can just build a casino and count on large numbers of people coming to play.

“They get bored,” Sypolt said. “This is going to be an experience.”

Betting big

 A breakdown of the gross revenue Haven Gaming LLC projects for Year 1 of a Danville "starter" casino, using a number of metrics, including census and traffic data, followed by "conservative" (1,813 slots) and "aggressive" (2,000 slots) projections for revenue after the full-blown casino opens — but before the hotel and spa are operating.

  YEAR 1 "STARTER" POST-YEAR 1 "CONSERVATIVE" POST-YEAR 1 "AGGRESSIVE"
Slot machines $120.9 million $198.5 million $219 million
Table games $24.2 million $27.7 million $27.7 million
Food and beverage $3.7 million $3.3 million $3.3 million
Miscellaneous $1.5 million n/a n/a
TOTAL $150.3 million $229.5 million $250 million

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Tracy Crane is a Danville-based reporter for The News-Gazette. Her email is tcrane@news-gazette.com.