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Hard Rock Casino Rockford gains initial approval

The Illinois Gaming Board’s unanimous vote finding “preliminary suitability” allows a group headed by Naperville gambling entrepreneur Dan Fischer to begin laying the groundwork on the long-sought Rockford casino.

Illinois gambling regulators gave an initial green light to what could become the state’s 11th casino Thursday, handing down preliminary approval for a proposed Hard Rock resort in Rockford.

It’s still no sure bet the developers will get the coveted casino license, though, as the Illinois Gaming Board is still investigating one of the project’s key investors over his video gambling empire.

The board’s unanimous vote finding “preliminary suitability” allows the group headed by Naperville gambling entrepreneur Dan Fischer to begin laying the groundwork for the long-sought project.

But Gaming Board Administrator Marcus Fruchter emphasized “it is not the ultimate step, in that it is not final licensure, nor is it a guarantee of final licensure” for Fischer’s group.

Fischer also runs the chain of Dotty’s video gambling lounges through his Illinois Cafe & Service Co., which Gaming Board investigators have been probing over a deal to buy another chain of gambling lounges in 2018.

Court records stemming from a vicious ongoing legal battle between Fischer and fellow suburban video gambling kingpin Rick Heidner show regulators are considering disciplinary action against Fischer’s company. The Gaming Board wouldn’t comment on that investigation.

During a special meeting on the Rockford proposal Thursday, Gaming Board Chairman Charles Schmadeke said: “Frankly, I have some questions about some of the former and current relationships of some of the key individuals, but those are questions. They are not evidence.”

In a presentation last week, Fischer said the $310 million project under the Hard Rock brand would generate $282 million in annual economic output. Designs for the proposed site at Rockford’s shuttered Clock Tower Resort feature a 110-foot guitar beckoning gamblers from the front of the building.

“We are pleased and excited to have received preliminary suitability from the Illinois Gaming Board today and we look forward to meeting with the staff to address any questions in the days and weeks ahead,” a spokesman for Fischer said in an email Thursday.

Rockford native and legendary Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, whose wife is an investor in the project, has been the face of the group’s bid. Fischer said it “creates a powerful combination that will forever ingrain the power of music, entertainment and excitement in this project.”

State Sen. Dale Syverson, a Rockford Republican, said in a statement that “[a]fter 20 years of working to make this casino a reality for our state, I am ecstatic for the Board’s decision.” He also gave Fischer “and the phenomenal team at Hard Rock a big round of applause for putting together a comprehensive application.”

The Rockford casino license is one of six new ones authorized by state legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker as part of a massive gambling expansion law passed in the summer of 2019.

The expansion also authorized the state’s three horse racing tracks to apply to build casinos, too. Hawthorne Race Course received preliminary approval to start building its casino in southwest suburban Stickney last summer.

By law, the Gaming Board was supposed to issue casino licenses by last October, but the understaffed agency cited the COVID-19 pandemic in saying it would take at least until April to sift through the glut of applications.

Though casino revenues for the state’s 10 existing casinos have fallen steadily over the past decade, Pritzker is banking on tax revenue from the gambling expansion to help fund an ambitious $45 billion capital infrastructure plan.