Rockford’s New Casino a Long Time Coming

Decades in the making, a casino has finally come to Rockford. Go inside the opening act of Hard Rock’s new development, learn how it all came together, and see why the final development promises to create a brighter future for this region.

Hard Rock Casino’s larger-than-life entertainment and gambling venue is coming to Rockford, and it’s not something that happened overnight. Instead, it’s been a journey that’s been decades in the making.

Rockford city leaders and area residents have dreamed of having a casino of their own, and finally they have their wish.

Hard Rock Casino, the “big joint,” as casino president Geno Iafrate calls it, is expected to arrive in two years just off Interstate 90 and East State Street, where the former Clock Tower Resort once stood. This $310 million, 65,000-square-foot casino includes a 1,600-seat concert venue, restaurants, retail stores and, eventually, a hotel. Construction on this massive project is slated to begin this spring.

“Geographically, we feel Rockford is a fantastic place for a casino,” Iafrate says. “The location will be front and center on Interstate 90 and, as you’re driving, you’ll see a big guitar and you’ll see our casino. As soon as you come off Interstate 90, you’re into our parking lot, so from a location and ease of access, it doesn’t get much better than what we’ll do in Rockford.”

For now, though, the Rockford area is enjoying what’s dubbed the “Opening Act,” a temporary casino operating at the former Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center. Like the Beatles opening for Roy Orbison and Prince opening for the Rolling Stones, the smaller casino, located at 610 N. Bell School Road, is just a taste of the headlining act.

(Hard Rock Casino photo)

A Long Time Coming

In June 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a massive gaming expansion bill that gave the green light to operate a casino in six Illinois communities: Rockford, Waukegan, Chicago, south-suburban Cook County, Danville and Williamson County (near Carbondale). The bill dropped earlier requirements that limited casinos to riverboats, and it allowed for a temporary facility that could operate for up to two years until the main casino opened. On top of it all, interested parties were required to submit proposals to the Illinois Gaming Board within 120 days.

“We’ll be up and running a temporary casino about a year in advance of anyone else,” says Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara says. “Chicago hasn’t even selected who’s going to operate their casino. We did this quickly and effectively, and we did it better than anyone in the state.”

In part, McNamara believes it was a strong partnership between civic and business leaders that helped Rockford to be first at the table, but then again, this isn’t the city’s first brush with a casino. Over the past several decades, Rockford leaders have pushed for a casino license in town, only to see their efforts rebuffed.

“In years past, we’d have a gaming expansion bill, and then everyone locally would be fighting over what share of the revenue they should get,” McNamara says. “So, when it got to Springfield, the legislators would say, ‘If you can’t figure this out locally, why are we taking up this bill?’ That’s been going on for 20 years.”

This time, things came together much differently. While things were passing through Springfield, leaders in Rockford were coalescing their forces.

Local officials came to a mutual agreement on how they would share the various taxes collected by a casino: Rockford would get 70%, Machesney Park would get 5%, Winnebago County would get 20% and Loves Park would get 5%.

“This time, we went down with a united front on what the revenue breakdown would be, and we explained that directly to our local legislative delegation,” McNamara says. “We all came together locally, and we got the endorsement of outside groups from the Chamber of Commerce to the Realtors to the building trades. We all worked in unison to get this accomplished down in Springfield.”

City Hall was getting its ducks in a row, as well. McNamara and his team prepared to solicit casino proposals with help from Union Gaming, acting as the City’s financial consultant, and attorneys from the Chicago-based firm of Taft, acting as the City’s gaming counsel.

Behind the scenes, McNamara assembled a team of Mayor’s Office staff, legal counsel and John Groh, president and CEO of Rockford Area Convention Visitors and Bureau.

“We received three exciting proposals, and we spent a very busy month reviewing the proposals,” says Bobbie Holzwarth, a local attorney hired by the City to help with the process. “After doing our due diligence, we submitted a recommendation to City Council for approval.”

Hard Rock Casino won the bid over two other proposals, Rock River West Casino and Forest City Casino. Rock River’s bid included a downtown casino, entertainment district and aquarium.

The proposed Forest City Casino would’ve included a casino, hotel and entertainment complex just south of Mercyhealth Javon Bea Hospital-Riverside, which is along I-90 and Riverside Boulevard, a couple of miles north of Hard Rock’s location.

“The Hard Rock had the most realistic plan, they had the most thorough plan, they brought a great site to us, they brought an international brand, and they brought the most beneficial package to the citizens of Rockford,” McNamara says.

The team looked at several factors before landing on Hark Rock. “The main objective that was taking place behind the scenes was determining the viability of each proposal,” Holzwarth says. “If certified by the City, would the applicant actually get licensed by the Illinois Gaming Board? Would they have the financial wherewithal to operate a top-notch casino? Would they be a good partner?”

It was a lot of work in 120 days, says Holzwarth. That work included reviewing the three proposals, negotiating the terms of a host agreement, holding a public hearing, making a recommendation and getting it approved by the City Council. At the same time, everything had to be done ethically, legally and accurately.

Once council approved the recommendation, it went on to the Illinois Gaming Board for final approval. Delays in the process occurred due to COVID-19, Holzwarth says.

“That’s with everything else going on in the world, and we don’t have a large staff,” McNamara says. “Our team worked crazy hours, and everyone did an unbelievable job. That’s why we’re the first in the state to open, the first in the state to get revenue, and the first in the state to have our permanent casino approved. I totally credit that to the decisions we made early in the process.”

The city also has a host community agreement with Hard Rock, created in a way to involve local workers and people in the local building trades. Officials also want local residents to be hired by the casino, since more than 1,000 jobs are expected to be generated between the Opening Act and the permanent facility.

“We also want the workers to look like Rockford, so we want it to be a diverse workforce, and Hard Rock agreed to that,” McNamara says. “We also want diverse, minority, women and locally owned contactors to help build the casino. That’s what happened with the temporary casino, and that’s what’s going to happen with the permanent casino. That agreement is filled with some wonderful things for everyone in Rockford.”

(Rockford Casino photos)

In the Meantime

While everyone waits for the completion of the Hard Rock Casino, the Opening Act is now open 24/7 and features more than 37,000 square feet of gaming space with more than 635 of the latest slots and electronic table games.

“There are no live games right now because of spacing and personnel,” Iafrate says. “We had a short time frame to open, so I can’t grab someone off the street and tell them to deal blackjack, because the training is extensive. As we move toward the big joint, we’ll have a dealer school open and training people how to be a dealer, because that takes months. You’re not just flipping cards.”

In addition to the entertainment options, the casino is also home to two restaurants, Rock River Bar & Grill, an upscale-casual setting that features USDA Prime steak, and Midway Bar, a sports bar with more than 20 beers on tap. The casino also includes a pop-up retail store that features Hard Rock merchandise.

Officials with Hard Rock say it took a little more than three months to turn the former Giovanni’s Restaurant and Convention Center into the current casino.

“They wanted a facility where they could open within three months of being awarded a temporary permit because they wanted to start up the operations, get it functioning and generate revenue for the city,” Groh says.

Hard Rock worked with the former owners of Giovanni’s to purchase the facility, so they wouldn’t have to build from scratch.

Midway Bar, for example, was most recently known as Alchemy and Rock River Bar & Grill was most recently known as Legacy.

“They had the utilities, the hookups, a parking lot already built and a building already built, so that cut out probably a year of construction, not to mention the planning from an architectural and engineering perspective,” Groh says. “Because they were able to open an existing facility that was built for dining and entertainment, they were able to open much quicker.”

The facility is also convenient because it’s less than a mile from where the new, permanent casino will stand.

“They had two restaurants already in place, and the rest of the space was used for banquets, weddings and dinners,” Groh says. “They took down some walls and they were able to use that footprint for gaming.”

The beauty about this venue, Iafrate says, is you don’t have to gamble to enjoy the casino.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” he says. “You might not gamble, but I’m pretty sure everyone eats. We have some great restaurants, so you can come out, have a beer and burger and watch the game. In the big joint, there will be concerts, restaurants and potentially a hotel.

“There’s more to do than just gamble, so the fact that you’re not interested in gambling shouldn’t be a reason not to come visit,” he adds.

I Promise

City officials estimate they’ll receive roughly $2 million a year in tax revenue from the Opening Act Casino and more than $8.9 million a year once the permanent casino opens. With that influx of new cash, city leaders want to put that money toward some civic good.

City officials worked with Rockford Public Schools and Northern Illinois University (NIU) to allocate $1.5 million for the next 17 years to Rockford Promise, a location-based scholarship program that allows area students to receive tuition-free admission into NIU.

“If you live in Rockford, if you go to Rockford Public Schools and if you earn a 3.0 grade-point average, you’ll get free tuition and general free education at NIU for four years,” McNamara says. “We hope it’ll attract and retain citizens, and we hope it’ll be used as a retention and attraction tool for our local businesses, because now, if you’re deciding between a job in Hoffman Estates and a job in Rockford, you’re probably going to choose that Rockford job because your kids can go to college for free.”

In 2021, 79% of Promise scholars were first-generation college students. McNamara says that’s critical, since only about 23% of Rockford’s population has a college degree, according to Census figures.

“Cities with a higher percentage of students with a college degree have a lower rate of violent crime,” McNamara says. “This addresses population, workforce development, violent crime and property values, and it gives kids hope.”

While casino funds stand to help many students earn their education at NIU, there’s much more to Rockford Promise, which has been serving the region since 2006.

“Rockford Promise has three amazing higher education partners: NIU, Rockford University and Rock Valley College,” says Susan Fumo, Rockford Promise Board President. “The City’s contribution has allowed us to offer college tuition to all of our qualified graduates, which has long been the organization’s vision. We’re continuing to build relationships with other partners to create additional pathways for RPS 205 graduates to go to college.”

The scholarship continues to grow each year. Fumo says there were 175 students awarded scholarships to NIU this year, a 57% increase from last year.

“With how the qualified applicant pool is growing, we estimate that by 2025, we could have more than 500 to 600 scholars going to NIU through that scholarship fund,” Fumo says. “Our students are striving to achieve the scholarship, and we’re already seeing it influence a culture of educational attainment in our schools.”

Rockford Promise scholars are also connected with mentors who support them until graduation. The group’s expanding reach means more mentors are needed.

“Many of our scholars are first-generation, low-income, minority scholars who are graduating from RPS 205,” Fumo says. “To assist with the difficult transition from high school to college, Rockford Promise has several levels of scholar support. To keep up with growing numbers of scholars, we’ll need the community to get involved with mentoring, so we can ensure these students stay in school and graduate.”

What’s Next

The Opening Act is off and running, and construction on the Hard Rock is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks. Before Hard Rock officially opens to the public, it’ll need one final approval from the Illinois Gaming Board.

“That’ll typically happen when the casino is fairly close to opening, because the gaming board will want to review and inspect everything before they give the final OK for the casino to open,” Holzwarth says.

Once those doors finally fling open, Rockford’s long wait will be over.

“We’re still finalizing designs for the big joint, so we’re hopeful in the late spring or early summer that we’ll do a groundbreaking ceremony, and off we go,” Iafrate says. “As far as the supply chain and how long it’ll take to get steel, we’ll just have to see how that plays out, but we’re pushing toward our two-year time frame.”

Once those Hard Rock signs are glowing over the Interstate, there’s just one more reason for people to choose Rockford – and Groh believes that can only help this region’s bottom line.

“Gaming is proven to bring visitors to a community, and the stronger the brand, the better the product, and the more likelihood that we’ll draw from a larger radius outside the community,” he says. “Having Hard Rock operate in the marketplace and having the power of their brand and name does nothing but associate that international, well-respected brand with Rockford.”