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Casino as government jackpot? Maybe not. Gambling in Illinois is undergoing some of the same market, demographic and technological stress that killed off Blockbuster and is now adding to the ills of retailers like Sears.

Crain's Chicago Business

Thursday, February 7, 2019  |  Column  |  Tim Jones

Gambling, Gaming

As City Hall and Springfield flirt yet again with gambling expansion, the odds of that wager translating into a payoff for taxpayers appear to get longer and longer.

Consider these grim numbers culled from public records:

  • ● The $1.36 billion in total gambling revenue that poured into Illinois coffers last year was no higher than in 2006, despite the addition in the intervening years of a bustling new casino in Des Plaines and tens of thousands of video gaming terminals in bars, restaurants and stand-alone parlors.
  • ● In 2018, in the middle of a broad economic boom, Illinois' 10 casinos all saw fewer customers; gross receipts fell for all casinos but two, and overall tax revenues were down dramatically from a decade earlier.
  • ● The same lackluster trends hold true across the region. Almost four dozen commercial casinos are within a six-hour drive of Chicago and nearly two of every three are seeing revenue and customer traffic tail off.

Chicago's current mayoral scrum is top heavy with candidates advocating for a city casino as part of the solution to chronic fiscal ills. Many Downstate communities are also pushing for their own casinos. 

Yet experts say there is growing evidence Illinois and surrounding states have hit peak saturation for legal gambling and that future expansions will only cannibalize existing operations. Even more ominous, the pool of willing customers may be aging out.

"One thing for sure is that there has been continued growth in casino competition over the past decade or two, and this increased competition has made it less likely that any single casino can take its long-term survival for granted," said Tom Garrett, an economist at the University of Mississippi who follows trends in legalized gambling.

Gambling in Illinois and the Midwest is undergoing some of the same market, demographic and technological stress that long ago killed off Blockbuster Video and is now contributing to the ills of movie theaters and big-box retailers such as Sears.