MARION — Cynde and David Bunch bet on a vision for a resort and casino at her family homestead, and that bet is one step closer to a payoff.
On Friday, the Williamson County Board approved the $180 million project that will make Bunch’s vision a reality.
The Walker’s Bluff team came to Williamson County Board seeking approval for a temporary casino facility, as well as a permanent casino. The temporary casino could be operational in a little more than a year.
“Williamson County, as a result of Senate Bill 690, has a very unique opportunity,” Board Chairman Ron Ellis said of the gambling expansion Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in June, which allowed Walker's Bluff to move forward with its plan to expand from a winery to a resort and casino.
He added that we are used to driving an hour or more one way to go to work. We may see people driving as far as 100 miles to come to work on this project. That could draw people from St. Louis, Nashville, Evansville and Kentucky.
The resolution passed Friday said Walker’s Bluff and the county board agreed to location, governance, revenue sharing and negotiating members for both the temporary and permanent casinos.
The next step for the project is state approval. Once Walker’s Bluff has that approval, they can break ground and begin construction of the first phase of the project.
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During her presentation to the board, Cynde Bunch said the Walker’s Bluff team had learned a lot about the hospitality and casino industries in the six years they have been working on the project and have met the “most wonderful friends."
Bunch announced that their partners in this project will be the Kehl family of Elite Casino Resorts.
“They may be from Iowa, but they could easily pass for Southern Illinoisans with their warmth, generosity and work ethic,” Bunch said.
She reiterated her pledge to use Southern Illinois labor, services and products first, pointing out that the Walker’s Bluff team is already filled with people from Southern Illinois. She also committed to recruiting, training and promoting diverse talent and offering contracts to minority businesses.
“… we are going to show the Midwest what tourism and economic development are all about,” Bunch said.
Ken Bonnet, chief operating officer and board member for Elite Casino Resorts, gave a brief history of the Kehl family and the business. After owning restaurants, the family bought a small excursion riverboat that traveled from Dubuque to Davenport and grew the company to four riverboats.
In the late 1980s, riverboat gambling came to Iowa.
“When they figured out they couldn’t beat them, they joined them,” Bonnet said.
At that time in Iowa, casinos had to have their gaming floors over water. They built Riverside Casino and put the game floor under water-filled bladders similar to water bed mattresses. A year after Riverside opened, the state dropped the water requirement.
The company also owns Grand Falls Casino Resort in Larchwood, Iowa, and Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport. Grand Falls is near the borders of South Dakota and Minnesota. Rhythm City is across the river from Illinois.
Bonnet said they currently buy 97% of their products in Iowa, with some buying in Illinois and South Dakota.
“You have to do business with the people who do business with you,” he said.
Bonnet also talked about the business' dedication to charitable work in the communities where resorts are located. Employees volunteer their time to charities and the company operates the GIVE (Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere) Foundation.
“I believe this is one gigantic opportunity to take Walker’s Bluff as it exists, add a casino and turn it into one fantastic operation,” Bonnet said.
Omar Garcia, chief financial officer for Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort, went through projections for the project and resort.
The total cost to build all phases of the resort is estimated to be $180 million. The annual estimated revenue is $63 million. The project will create 1,010 construction jobs and 890 of them are expected to go to Southern Illinois residents. The remaining 120 jobs will be filled by people living in other areas of the state. Annual tax revenue is projected to be $4.2 million.
In Year 3, Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort is expected to employ 330 people. An estimated 88% of those jobs will be filled by residents of Perry, Jackson, Williamson and Jefferson counties.
The designer of Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort is Mohammed Lawal of Lawal Scott Erickson Architects, a Minneapolis-based architecture, interior design and planning firm.
Lawal described his first visit to Walker’s Bluff.
“The first thing I saw was a beautiful sign that says Walker’s Bluff of local stone, then the vineyard,” Lawal said.
He has incorporated local natural elements, like the stone on the sign, into the design of the resort. Parking is designed to mimic the vineyard with rows of green among the parking rows.
“It is designed to connect natural elements with an upscale design,” Lawal said.
The project design also incorporates several environmental and sustainability goals, such as storage of storm water and use of indigenous plants and geothermal heating and cooling systems.
“What we look at is the long vision. What do you want, and how do you get there?” Lawal said.
“Your vision is in these slides,” Commissioner Ellis said to Cynde Bunch. “It will be fun to see it come to fruition.”
“I’ve always seen Southern Illinois as something special, and we need to open up to the world,” Bunch said.
Commissioner Brent Gentry talked about how Cynde and David Bunch have remained steadfast to their vision of the project through many years and versions of the gaming bill before it finally passed this year.
“I wouldn’t have the guts to do what she’s done, but she had a vision and stuck to it. Cynde never flinched. She and Dave stuck to it,” Gentry said.
“This is a bright shining spot for not only Williamson County, but for all of Southern Illinois,” Commissioner Jim Marlo said.