A little-known hamlet of mobile homes tucked away in Lake County seems an unlikely location for a bustling new casino, one piece in a massive gambling expansion approved by Illinois lawmakers.
Park City has just about 7,500 residents, virtually no business district and a bare-bones government.
The way the deal unfolded to bring a casino to this community says much about how winners and losers are picked as Illinois looks to fill its strapped bank accounts with gambling cash.
At the center are three characters: a state senator who sponsored the legislation, a developer who is one of the senator's regular campaign donors and a small-town mayor who jumped at the opportunity.
The project's biggest boosters are eager to make the casino a reality, but Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated he may not sign the gambling legislation out of concern it is too expansive and could undermine state oversight of the industry.
Adding to the debate are questions about Park City's exclusive agreement with developer Alan Ludwig that was quietly inked more than a year before state lawmakers passed the gambling bill May 31. Ludwig saw his previous bid to build a casino scuttled by gambling regulators due to controversial business ties.
State Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, who sponsored the legislation, said he didn't write Park City into the legislation to help his friend and supporter. He said he didn't even know Ludwig has had a deal with the town since early 2010.
"I've known the guy for over 20 years. I'm not denying that. But I'm not going to jail for anybody. I'm not going to put a fix in for anybody. No," Link said in an interview.
The prospect of a gambling hall in Park City had its roots in years of frustration for Link and Ludwig, who since the 1990s have shared a desire to bring a casino to Lake County.
Ludwig could never persuade state regulators to award him Illinois' only available casino license, and Link's efforts to expand gambling repeatedly failed in the Legislature. Things got worse in April 2009 when an anti-casino mayor was elected in Waukegan, long considered the prime location for new gambling.
Suddenly, both men needed to find a willing host in order to continue their quest.
Link looked to neighboring Park City, which has quick access to major highways, and approached Mayor Steve Pannell. Soon after, Pannell was approached by Ludwig. Town leaders were quick to warm to the idea.
"We're all receptive. All the aldermen are receptive, 100 percent," Pannell said in an interview while standing on the front porch of his mobile home.
Pannell said he and the city's lawyer had a private meeting at City Hall with Ludwig and the businessman's attorney, and they hashed out an agreement making Ludwig the town's chosen casino developer. Pannell declined to discuss details but said issues like impact studies and revenue projections will come later.
"We talked about financing, responsibilities, simple questions any mayor would ask," Pannell said.
Ludwig said many other specifics would be decided at a later time, when he partners with a potential casino operator. The focus of the meeting with Pannell was to make a deal so "if there was ever another expansion, we'd have an opportunity."
One provision stands out in the short agreement — Ludwig's company would receive half of Park City's share of gambling tax revenue for the casino's first 20 years of operation. Based on figures from other Illinois casino towns, that provision could be worth millions of dollars a year.
In February 2010, the City Council approved an ordinance naming Ludwig's firm, Park City Gaming, as its exclusive partner. It was roughly a year before Link introduced the gambling expansion bill that passed last spring.
"We figured if the legislation passed, we would be ready," Pannell said. If Quinn signs the bill, "we'll be ready to steamroll."
One cozy casino deal
How a tiny town in Lake County may win big in the Illinois gambling expansion bill
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.