Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed that a city-owned casino be built on the Southeast Side, in the hope that gambling revenues will help solve the city’s pension crisis.
While the editors of this paper have come out in support of the proposal (“Done right, A Southeast Side casino could be a winning hand,” 14 Dec.), I feel it’s ill-conceived. Gambling is solely an act of consumption, contributing little to the commonweal.
A city casino would be in competition with those in Hammond, Indiana. Those casinos, however, are well established. While some of their patrons might look to see what a city casino has to offer, I believe that Hoosier familiarity would win out over Chicago uniqueness.
People who go to Indiana to gamble also spend money there on gasoline, liquor and cigarettes. Prices are cheaper, taxes are lower. Why would someone go to a Chicago casino, abutting fairly remote Lake Calumet, to buy those items at higher prices and from local establishments that don’t as yet even exist?
In addition, the casinos in Hammond are easily accessible from the Chicago Skyway, while the proposed Chicago site (roughly situated between Torrence Avenue on the east, 103rd Street to the north, and I-94 to the west), is off the beaten path. Indeed, the editorial referred to the area as “desolate.” A great deal of new infrastructure would be needed to increase accessibility. How would that be paid for?
And who would or wouldn’t, for that matter, come to a Chicago casino? In the editorial, Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza said that a Southeast Side casino could attract people interested in outdoor activities on Lake Calumet, as well as at an environmental area known as Big Marsh. Somehow, though, I can’t see the average gambler taking a break to go kayaking on Lake Calumet or the Calumet River, or bird-watching at Big Marsh.
My biggest qualm about this project, however, is that it would not produce anything of durable value. It would solely be a form of large-scale consumption of people’s money, time and, unfortunately, livelihoods. Can anyone put a price tag on the misery to individuals and families created by gambling?
There might be a “green” alternative to a casino. A few years back, I argued that the city, in conjunction with the State of Illinois, should purchase the former U.S. Steel site and turn it into a park, one that emphasizes environmental education and outdoor activities.
Now I would recommend that the city and state acquire the proposed casino site to add to such a project. It eventually could all be linked via a combined river walk and bike path along the Calumet River. Such a large-scale project would, thankfully, take decades to unfold, luring potentially thousands to the area. Anything worthwhile takes time to create.
Those who fish, hike and birdwatch (the latter especially), freely spend on their hobbies. Collateral businesses would spring up to serve visitors seeking to buy food, amenities and gear here, not in Indiana. Fees for licenses, permits and privileges would bring in money for state and city government. And the emphasis throughout would be on the environment, education and, especially, family activities.
The lure of a casino to solve Chicago’s pension problems is merely a balm. It can relieve the pain, but it will never cure the ill.
John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.
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