June 2, 1011 —, 2011 -- Visitors to Chicago may soon do a double-take upon landing at either of the city's major airports when they see gamblers working one-armed bandits. They may also see a glittering new casino nestled among the city's iconic skyscrapers when they arrive downtown if new Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his way.
Emanuel and state legislators—faced with crippling budget deficits—want Chicago to become the first big city in America to own a casino and control thousands of slot and video poker machines. The Illinois legislature has already approved such a plan, allowing five casinos in Chicago, its suburbs, and downstate cities but Gov. Pat Quinn is holding the veto card and he's worried about turning Chicago into Las Vegas of the Midwest.
Illinois voters, Quinn says, do not favor "excessive gambling," but he has not publicly said whether he will veto the plan.
Chicago's new mayor, like his predecessor, see a city-owned casino generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year—money that could be used to help fill a nearly billion-dollar deficit. Potential developers are already eying possible sites downtown, including the once grand Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue, the gleaming new Trump tower in the River North neighborhood, and Northerly Island—a spit of land off Chicago's lakefront that once served as a small airport.
"A Chicago casino will spur local economic growth and provide jobs to Chicagoans," Emanuel says.
But opponents fear a casino will divert revenue away from local venues and the city's strong convention business. Doug Dobmeyer, long active in Chicago civic affairs, wonders, "If you lose your money at a casino, are you going to go to a restaurant, are you going to go to the opera, are you going to see the Cubs or the Bulls? The answer is no."
Many Chicago-area politicians are betting that Gov. Quinn will approve at least part of the deal. After all, Illinois is broke; it's struggling with a nearly $13 billion dollar deficit and is unable to pay many of its bills. That reality alone may be enough to drive the politics that could make Chicago the biggest gambling mecca between Las Vegas and Atlantic City.