Ill. city credits gambling for 'life'

October 19, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

JOLIET, Ill. -- Five years ago, this was a typical rust belt city of shuttered stores, crumbling sidewalks and empty streets. Today, thousands of tourists step along red brick walkways lined with honey locust trees.

The city's change in fortune is largely the result of four riverboat casinos docked along the banks of the Des Plaines River. Since opening in 1992, the hulking ships have brought nearly 4,000 jobs and $57 million in tax revenue to Joliet.

More significantly, perhaps, they have enhanced the economy without increasing crime or hurting local businesses, according to police data and interviews with public officials and residents.

"It's brought a new vitality and life to our downtown," said city planner Donald J. Fisher. "It also changed the overall image of the city -- which is very hard to do."

As Maryland legislators consider whether to legalize casinos, gambling companies want them to think of cities such as this one. Harrah's Entertainment, which owns two of the riverboats here, says it would like to open either a floating or land casino in the Washington suburbs or Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

While there are some caveats to Joliet's gambling success story, local officials say the casinos clearly have boosted both the economy and morale -- at least for now.

Joliet is a city of 83,000 about an hour's drive southwest of downtown Chicago. Once home to a U.S. Steel plant and a

thriving Caterpillar Tractor factory, the city went into economic decline in the late 1970s because of foreign competition. It last made national news in 1983, when its unemployment rate was the highest in the country.

Illinois legalized casino gambling in 1990 to help revitalize its river towns. Around the same time, Joliet began redeveloping its city center by planting trees, putting in the brick sidewalks and pushing out prostitutes.

The first riverboat, the Empress I, arrived three summers ago. When Harrah's opened its downtown casino the next spring, the city center was safer than it had been in years, residents say. Since then, reported incidences of robbery, theft and burglary have remained stable, ac-cording to city police data.

Having the casinos "has been a surprisingly pleasant experience for the city," said Joliet Police Chief Joseph P. Beazley.

With Joliet's city center cleaned up, the riverboats have drawn tourists there in much the same way Harborplace drew people to downtown Baltimore. For city officials, the casinos have become the financial equivalent of an open vault. This year, $25 million in gambling tax revenue is expected to account for more than a fifth of Joliet's budget.

The local government has spent most of the casino money on capital improvements, including 1,600 trees and miles of newly paved streets and curbs. The extra revenue also has allowed the city to cut taxes, including the annual $25 residents had paid for owning a vehicle and the monthly $5.50 user fee on water bills.

Robert Vertin, a supervisor for Ryder truck rental, saved $75 this year on his van, pickup truck and car. And he hasn't had to pay the water tax for two years. "I think it's good for the city," Mr. Vertin said of casino gambling.

Joliet also has used the revenue to reduce its $55 million in bond debt. Like most cities, Joliet used to sell bonds to pay for improvements such as sidewalks, and residents paid off the bonds over decades through taxes.

Since the riverboats opened, gambling revenue has trimmed $8 million from the debt. If profits stay on pace, city officials predict Joliet will be debt-free by 2002 at no direct cost to taxpayers.

With 3,800 employees, the casinos have become the single largest employer in Will County, which has a population of 375,000. More people work for the casinos than for once-mighty Caterpillar or either the county or state governments, according to the Will Chamber of Commerce.

However, the salaries are considerably lower. Harrah's workers earn an average of $19,463 annually, while Caterpillar pays most of its remaining employees an average of $46,000 a year.

Casinos have been blamed for hurting local businesses in other cities, but they don't appear to have had that effect in Joliet. In interviews, city officials and downtown restaurant owners said the riverboats had not siphoned off customers.

On the other hand, casinos have not provided the extra clientele some had hoped for.

The Keg, a tavern known for serving the best pizza in town, sits just four blocks from Harrah's. Owner Brian Krockey estimates that the Keg draws up to 3,000 customers a week -- but only about 50 are gamblers.

The reason is simple. Gamblers come to Joliet for the casinos, not the cuisine. Most never venture beyond Harrah's parking garage, and there is little reason for them to do so. The casino features a seven-television sports bar, an Italian grill, a delicatessen, a Starbucks coffee stand and a gift shop.

"The spillover is nominal, I think, for most businesses," Mr. Fisher said.

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