Potawatomi wants to build casino in Waukegan, Illinois

One of six that responded to city RFP for casino developers

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee

Last updated on August 7th, 2019 at 12:03 pm

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee, which is owned and operated by the Forest County Potawatomi Community, wants to build a new casino in the city of Waukegan, Illinois.

Potawatomi announced in a news release on Monday afternoon that it had submitted an application to develop a commercial casino in Waukegan, which lies just south of the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. Downtown Waukegan is about 15 miles from downtown Kenosha.

The city of Waukegan issued a request for proposals in July seeking potential casino developers. Responses were due back to the city on Monday.

Rodney Ferguson, Potawatomi chief executive officer and general manager, said it would be fitting that his group develop a casino in Waukegan since it has been operating a hotel and casino in Milwaukee for decades. He said Potawatomi considers Waukegan to be in the same market as Milwaukee.

“Because we’ve been in the market the last three decades it just makes sense to continue our brand in that particular market area,” he said.

The RFP from Waukegan was issued following Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signing into law a gambling package that expanded the number of available casino licenses in the state. The new law added licenses for Waukegan, Rockford, Danville, Williamson County and the south suburbs of Chicago.

Ferguson said Potawatomi hadn’t put together in its proposal the full details of what would be included in the new casino. He said the RFP calls for up to 2,000 slot machines, as well as table games and other amenities that would draw guests to the property.

Potawatomi’s proposal primarily covers its background and successes in Milwaukee, as well as its plans for marketing the Waukegan facility. It doesn’t identify the specific types of games that would be included in the casino — those details, along with its overall size and location, would be worked out in future feasibility studies.

The RFP states the city has identified a number of properties it owns as possible locations for a casino. Chief among them is a 28-acre site within the Fountain Square commercial and retail development, located near the southwest corner of Illinois highways 43 and 120. The site is also close to U.S. Highway 41 and Interstate 94.

Robert Long, corporation counsel for Waukegan, said the city had received six proposals by the RFP deadline. He did not disclose the other entities that submitted responses to the RFP. Officials had not yet gone over those submissions in detail by early Monday evening, Long said.

In the release, Potawatomi described the area around Waukegan as “rich with tribal history and in the heart of Potawatomi treaty lands.” Forest County Potawatomi Community members were living and doing business there when the French and early settlers first came to the area. It was named Little Fort and later changed to Waukegan, the Potawatomi word for “trading post.”

The Potawatomi re-established their presence in Milwaukee nearly 30 years ago after their ancestors had largely been removed from the area during the 19th Century. It described its proposed casino in Waukegan as the start of a similar mission.

“Our (Milwaukee) property attracts more than 6 million visitors annually, making it one of the largest entertainment destinations in the Midwest. With a history of expansion and continual reinvestment, we don’t take our success for granted,” Ferguson said. “We are excited about the opportunity to bring that same level of success to Waukegan.”

The Waukegan casino would be built not far from a site in Kenosha where another casino had been planned by the Menominee Indian Tribe. That tribe sought to develop an off-reservation casino at the 220-acre former Dairyland Greyhound Park at 5522 104th Ave. That proposal was ultimately rejected by former Gov. Scott Walker. In explaining his decision, Walker noted that an agreement with the Potawatomi would require the state to reimburse the tribe for any lost revenue if the Kenosha casino were built. The Potawatomi tribe expressed strong opposition to the casino proposal in Kenosha.

Ferguson said he views the Waukegan casino as a different situation than Kenosha for a couple of reasons. First of all, the Kenosha casino was planned to be a “larger casino,” while Potawatomi is proposing to build the Waukegan location according to what it determines to be the appropriate size. Secondly, he said that if Potawatomi doesn’t build the Waukegan casino, someone else will.

Ferguson said he’s unsure if or how much business would be taken away from the Milwaukee location with the construction of a Waukegan casino. He said when a new casino opens it does usually result in a loss of business for others but it also typically grows the market.

Get our email updates

Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.