Rockford, Illinois News

Pandemic to blame for delaying Rockford Hard Rock Casino license

Green light to begin the $300 million project could come in six months.

ROCKFORD — The Illinois Gaming Board says the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible delaying the approval of Hard Rock Casino’s gaming license.

The board has delayed a total of eight licenses because of staff shortages and virus-related shutdowns. Officials say he pandemic forced state agencies to shift almost all of their focus to COVID-19 mitigation.

“Like all private government agencies and private businesses, the board’s work has been impacted by COVID-19,” Illinois Gaming Board Administrator Marcus Fruchter said. “This is not an excuse or a crutch, it is simply an acknowledgement that work and life are different in a global pandemic.”

Hard Rock’s application did come up for a vote during a recent meeting but the vote was not whether to issue a license. The board moved to make a change to the application, prompting speculation that the casino giant’s local plans may have be in jeopardy. Officials say that’s not the case.

“We understand the complexity of work to be done by the Illinois Gaming Board in thoroughly reviewing the application and the delays COVID-19 has added to the process,” local Hard Rock spokesperson Pam Maher wrote in a statement. “The Hard Rock Casino Rockford team continues to comply with all requests for information, and we are hopeful and excited to continue moving forward.”

The City of Rockford sent Hard Rock’s application to the state Oct. 28, 2019, expecting the review process to take as long as nine months. By law, the board had a year to make a decision. But, Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared the virus outbreak an emergency then issued a statewide stay-at-home order in mid March, setting the process back even further. It could now be another six months before the license is approved.

“I hope it won’t be another six months before we have the determination,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara wrote in a statement, “especially since we have only one applicant unlike other communities that have multiple applications. We believe Hard Rock is working diligently with the IGB to move this process forward. At the City, we too are committed to doing what we can to get this done as expeditiously as possible.”

Hard Rock’s plan is to turn Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center into a temporary casino while the permanent facility is erected at the site of the former Clock Tower Resort. Construction cannot begin at either site until a license is issued.

The temporary casino will be open for 18-24 months and feature 736 slot machines. The permanent facility will offer 1,500 slots and 55 gambling tables. The 21-acre development would include several restaurants, including Hard Rock Cafe. The “Rock Shop” will involve Karen Nielsen, wife of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, and the 1,600-seat Hard Rock Live! will serve as a music venue and event center. Rick Nielsen has been the face of the project and is expected to display some of his prolific guitar collection and Cheap Trick memorabilia throughout the casino.

Hard Rock has guaranteed the City of Rockford $7 million in annual gaming revenue, committed to help fund improvements at several Rockford Park District properties and give to local charities.

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