PHOTOS: 20-year celebration draws two Joliet casino founders
By Bob Okon email@example.com June 21, 2012 7:40PM
Tim Wilmott, president of Penn Faming, talks to local leaders and longtime employees at the 20th Anniverserary of the Hollywood Joliet Casino, formerly the Emperess. | John Patsch~For Sun-times Media
Updated: July 23, 2012 7:52AM
JOLIET — Las Vegas said it couldn’t be done.
Bankers said it was too risky.
Twenty years later, Hollywood Casino Joliet is boasting of bigger attendance over the last two decades than any sports teams in Chicago with the exception of the Cubs.
The casino started as the Empress in June 1992 is still standing (or floating on a barge as it were). And, two of the local owners who started it were among those celebrating the anniversary at the casino Thursday.
Both Pete Ferro and Ed McGowan said they were impressed with what the current owner, Penn National Gaming, has done with the casino, although the Egyptian theme they created has been replaced with Hollywood glitz.
“I’m lost,” McGowan quipped, “Everything is totally different.”
Things were really different before the Empress opened for its first day of business in Joliet.
Today, it may seem that opening the first casino in the Chicago region was the biggest no-brainer business decision of its era.
But Ferro and McGowan used words like “scared” and “concerned” as they reflected back on those pre-opening days.
What made them “scared,” Ferro said, was a visit to Las Vegas to consult with some of the big names in the casino business. In those days, riverboat gambling in the Midwest was still a new and untested idea. Las Vegas did not see a future in it, Ferro said.
“They all told us it’s not going to work,” Ferro said. “It kind of spooked us.”
Bankers back in the Midwest weren’t any more confident, McGowan said.
“Nobody even talked to us about financing,” he said. “The banks wouldn’t talk with us. It was too big of a risk.”
In the days before the Empress opened, the riverboat casino only had a “handful” of reservations for its first cruise, McGowan said. Back then, you needed a $20 ticket to get on the boat.
“We were very concerned,” he said.
Then, the casino opened, and the place was packed. Demand for admission tickets was so great that people were scalping them.
Since that opening day, the casino has had 40 million visitors, Tim Wilmott, president of Penn National Gaming, told a gathering of guests at the party.
“If you compare that to the sports teams (in Chicago), only the Cubs have had more visitors than this casino in the last 20 years,” Wilmott said. “This operation probably has had more wins than the Cubs in the last 20 years.”
Many things have changed in the casino business. But, some things have not.
Wilmott, who was general manager of crosstown rival Harrah’s Joliet Casino when it opened in 1993, remembered that back then there was serious talk about the opening of a Chicago casino that would drain business from Joliet. Legislation pending in Springfield today could make a Chicago casino a reality, although its still uncertain.
“The future is muddy,” Wilmott said. “The future was muddy 20 years ago, and we survived and did well.”