Ill. city credits gambling for 'life'


JOLIET, Ill. -- Five years ago, this was a typical rust belt city of shuttered stores, crumbling sidewalks and empty streets. Today, thousands of tourists step along red brick walkways lined with honey locust trees.

The city's change in fortune is largely the result of four riverboat casinos docked along the banks of the Des Plaines River. Since opening in 1992, the hulking ships have brought nearly 4,000 jobs and $57 million in tax revenue to Joliet.

More significantly, perhaps, they have enhanced the economy without increasing crime or hurting local businesses, according to police data and interviews with public officials and residents.

"It's brought a new vitality and life to our downtown," said city planner Donald J. Fisher. "It also changed the overall image of the city -- which is very hard to do."

As Maryland legislators consider whether to legalize casinos, gambling companies want them to think of cities such as this one. Harrah's Entertainment, which owns two of the riverboats here, says it would like to open either a floating or land casino in the Washington suburbs or Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

While there are some caveats to Joliet's gambling success story, local officials say the casinos clearly have boosted both the economy and morale -- at least for now.

Joliet is a city of 83,000 about an hour's drive southwest of downtown Chicago. Once home to a U.S. Steel plant and a

thriving Caterpillar Tractor factory, the city went into economic decline in the late 1970s because of foreign competition. It last made national news in 1983, when its unemployment rate was the highest in the country.

Illinois legalized casino gambling in 1990 to help revitalize its river towns. Around the same time, Joliet began redeveloping its city center by planting trees, putting in the brick sidewalks and pushing out prostitutes.

The first riverboat, the Empress I, arrived three summers ago. When Harrah's opened its downtown casino the next spring, the city center was safer than it had been in years, residents say. Since then, reported incidences of robbery, theft and burglary have remained stable, ac-cording to city police data.

Having the casinos "has been a surprisingly pleasant experience for the city," said Joliet Police Chief Joseph P. Beazley.

With Joliet's city center cleaned up, the riverboats have drawn tourists there in much the same way Harborplace drew people to downtown Baltimore. For city officials, the casinos have become the financial equivalent of an open vault. This year, $25 million in gambling tax revenue is expected to account for more than a fifth of Joliet's budget.

The local government has spent most of the casino money on capital improvements, including 1,600 trees and miles of newly paved streets and curbs. The extra revenue also has allowed the city to cut taxes, including the annual $25 residents had paid for owning a vehicle and the monthly $5.50 user fee on water bills.

Robert Vertin, a supervisor for Ryder truck rental, saved $75 this year on his van, pickup truck and car. And he hasn't had to pay the water tax for two years. "I think it's good for the city," Mr. Vertin said of casino gambling.

Joliet also has used the revenue to reduce its $55 million in bond debt. Like most cities, Joliet used to sell bonds to pay for improvements such as sidewalks, and residents paid off the bonds over decades through taxes.

Since the riverboats opened, gambling revenue has trimmed $8 million from the debt. If profits stay on pace, city officials predict Joliet will be debt-free by 2002 at no direct cost to taxpayers.

With 3,800 employees, the casinos have become the single largest employer in Will County, which has a population of 375,000. More people work for the casinos than for once-mighty Caterpillar or either the county or state governments, according to the Will Chamber of Commerce.

However, the salaries are considerably lower. Harrah's workers earn an average of $19,463 annually, while Caterpillar pays most of its remaining employees an average of $46,000 a year.

Casinos have been blamed for hurting local businesses in other cities, but they don't appear to have had that effect in Joliet. In interviews, city officials and downtown restaurant owners said the riverboats had not siphoned off customers.

On the other hand, casinos have not provided the extra clientele some had hoped for.

The Keg, a tavern known for serving the best pizza in town, sits just four blocks from Harrah's. Owner Brian Krockey estimates that the Keg draws up to 3,000 customers a week -- but only about 50 are gamblers.

The reason is simple. Gamblers come to Joliet for the casinos, not the cuisine. Most never venture beyond Harrah's parking garage, and there is little reason for them to do so. The casino features a seven-television sports bar, an Italian grill, a delicatessen, a Starbucks coffee stand and a gift shop.

"The spillover is nominal, I think, for most businesses," Mr. Fisher said.

While public reaction to casinos in Joliet has been generally positive, not everyone is thrilled.

Some residents worry about the social impact, especially on compulsive gamblers.

Paula Schultheis used to deal blackjack for Harrah's, but quit -- partly because she couldn't stand watching players lose money.

"It was depressing to me seeing people lose $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 a cruise," Ms. Schultheis said. "You'd see the same faces, day after day, cruise after cruise."

Since casinos came, problem gambling is more visible in Joliet. Two years ago, the city established its first Gamblers Anonymous group, which now has 25 members. Most say they either have considered or committed crimes because of their gambling problem, according to group's founder, who identifies himself only as Richard.

While city officials cite firm numbers regarding the casinos' economic benefits, no one knows for sure how much problem gambling costs the community in crime, imprisonment and lost work productivity. Harrah's downplays the problem, saying that only 4 percent of its customers lose more than $63 a visit.

Besides social costs, some economists argue that the city is stealing dollars from other parts of the state. More than 80 percent of Joliet's customers come from Illinois, particularly Chicago and its suburbs, local officials say.

In interviews, casino players said they would have spent the money they lost gambling on other goods in their local economies, including clothing, jewelry, toys or a new deck.

"You're enriching Joliet at the expense of people in Chicago," said John Kindt, a professor of commerce and legal policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

But that seems to suit people in Joliet just fine. After years of

being held up as an example of economic failure, the city appears to be enjoying the new luster casinos have brought.

How long Joliet's fortunes will continue, however, is an open question. Competition from Iowa is fierce, and many fear that Chicago will legalize casinos one day.

Like many others here, Mr. Krockey, the restaurant owner, says he believes the hordes of tourists and tens of millions in tax revenue won't last in such a competitive environment.

"One day, I think the boats will pull out altogether," he said.

Tomorrow: In Louisiana, gambling has brought one scandal after another.

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