Empress’ start a shot in the arm for Joliet
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org June 15, 2012 11:14PM
Harold Ellebracht (from left), Tom Lambrecht and Bill Sabo cut the ribbon at the launch of the Empress Casino on June 17, 1992, | submitted photo
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:17AM
JOLIET — Mike Hansen remembers the exact moment when he first heard about the possibility of gambling boats coming to Joliet.
The Joliet lawyer was at a banquet in Shorewood in the late 1980s when client Tom Lambrecht approached him.
“He said, ‘I’ve got this idea,’” Hansen recalled last week during an interview with The Herald-News.
Lambrecht’s idea was to get a group of local investors together to try for
one of the riverboat casino licenses
being offered in the state for the first time.
Lambrecht, who owned T.J. Lambrecht Construction, and a group of local businessmen came up with the money required to get the deal off the ground. They applied for, and won, a riverboat casino license, and the Empress debuted as the first form of legalized gambling in northern Illinois 20 years ago on June 17, 1992.
The boat’s major investors were Lambrecht, who died in a car crash in 2003; and Pete Ferro Jr., past owner of P.T. Ferro Construction in Joliet and majority owner and chief executive of the now defunct Joliet JackHammers minor league baseball team.
Also: William McEnery, who started the Gas City chain, which now is in bankruptcy; banker William Sabo, former president of First National Bank of Lockport; Robert Kegley Sr., who owned an insurance company called Columbian Agency; Charles “Chip” Hammersmith Jr., whose family founded Elmhurst-Chicago Stone Co.; and Edward McGowan, founder of Edon Construction Co. in Alsip.
Rolling the dice
While it might seem in hindsight the riverboat concept was a sure bet, Hansen and former Empress spokesman Jim Murphy, of J.V. Murphy and Associates, both say that the original investors were taking a risk because the concept was unproven.
“Everybody was apprehensive and fearful,” Hansen said. “Riverboat gaming was still new. Nobody knew what was going to happen.”
Even former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was skeptical. He referred to the riverboats as “putt-putts,” Murphy said.
The riverboat/dinner cruise casino concept was new and patrons had to make reservations to get on the boat. The day before its maiden voyage, there were few reservations, Murphy said. But the boat was a hit right away and it raked in about $12 million the first month, Murphy said.
“The Empress was clearly a winner,” Murphy said. “By Christmas Day of that year, we had our one millionth passenger.”
Two boats for Joliet
Hansen, who was hired to handle the boat’s local legal work and became the company’s general counsel in 1994, said former state Rep. Larry Wennlund helped get a “Des Plaines River” boat added to the gambling bill that had previously only listed specific cities, including Joliet.
That paved the way for Joliet to have two boats and the Empress group to locate on former Caterpillar Inc. land along the river instead of locating downtown. The group didn’t want to be in downtown Joliet where Harrah’s would later locate a casino, Hansen said.
The Empress group made its decision based on the bad image downtown Joliet had in the 1980s, Hansen said.
There also was an idea to locate both Joliet boats on Material Services land farther west along the river, but that idea never took off, Hansen said. If it had, Hansen believes the site could have been an entertainment and gambling hub for the city that would have drawn a convention center, shops and restaurants galore.
“Downtown is a government area and that’s what it should be,” Hansen said.
But the idea never came to fruition and the city had two boats located just a few miles apart.
The Empress group sold the casino in 1999 for about $600 million, which was good timing because a lot of changes came to the industry in the next decade, Hansen said.
“The Legislature has ruined gaming in the state of Illinois because they just want to tax it to death,” Hansen said.
The original Empress group sold to Horseshoe Casino and Jack Binion, which created a strange situation, Hansen said. The state approved the sale to Horseshoe but wouldn’t give Binion a license. So Binion sold the Empress and its sister casino in Hammond, Ind., to Argosy Gaming Co. Argosy sold to Penn National Gaming, which owns the casino, renamed Hollywood Casino, today.
“The city and the residents of Will County owe an unbelievable debt of gratitude to these Empress owners,” Hansen said. “It will never be duplicated, ever.”
Hansen said most gambling establishments are owned by large publicly traded companies these days and it is unlikely a small band of investors will ever be able to do what the Empress group did back in the day.
Murphy said the Empress gave Joliet just the shot in the arm it needed after a decade of high unemployment and turmoil. The casino employed almost 2,000 people when it opened, he said.
“It instilled a lot of pride in the residents,” he said. “It changed the city for the better. It put us on the map.”