Penn Entertainment Gets Approval for its Illinois Riverboat Casinos to Move to Land

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Six months ago, national casino operator Penn Entertainment formally declared they wanted to close their two riverboat casinos in Illinois and rebuild them in land-based casinos.

Hollywood Casino Aurora on the Fox River and Hollywood Casino Joliet have both been approved for onshore moves by the Illinois Gaming Board. Between the two, the relocation build will cost Penn more than $520 million.

“Approval of the relocation proposals for the Hollywood Aurora and Hollywood Joliet casinos are a significant step in the regulatory process to bring new gaming venues to these host communities,” said Gaming Board Administrator Marcus Fruchter.

Legal Fiction

Riverboat casinos have long been seen as a kind of “legal fiction” that circumnavigated state laws via the tradition of riverboat gambling. Most of the casinos rarely, if ever, left the docks where they were moored. Over the years, some were even built on stilts and weren’t really boats at all.

As Illinois now moves to legalize land-based casino gaming in the state, Penn Entertainment felt that its riverboat casinos risked being left behind.

Hollywood Casino Aurora opened in 1993, before Penn Entertainment bought Hollywood Corp in 2003. Hollywood Casino Joliet originally opened as a riverboat casino in 1992 under the Empress Casino Name. Penn took over operation of that site in 2005 – however, while undergoing renovation in 2009, the original boat was partly destroyed by fire.

Penn reopened it as the rebranded Hollywood Casino Joliet later that year. Now, both casinos are in for a giant inland relocation.

Millions of Visitors

Hollywood Casino Aurora will be moving from the Fox River spot to a permanent building near the Fermilab campus and the Chicago Premium Outlets mall in Aurora.

The expanded location will feature 900 slot machines, more than 50 table games, and a 200-room hotel plus convention center. It will be the more expensive of the two projects, costing an estimated $360 million.

“Our plan for Aurora is to construct a modern, best-in-class casino and hotel in an ideal location off I-88 that will allow us to serve the millions of visitors to the adjacent Simon Premium Outlet Mall,” said Penn Entertainment President and CEO Jay Snowden.

The Hollywood Casino Joliet, currently near Will County on the Des Plaines River, will move to the Rock Run Crossings development, which is just a mile or so inland. The new development will have a highly visible location off the intersection between Interstates 80 and 55.

It will have 800 slots, more than 40 table games, a branded Barstool Sportsbook area, and an event center. Its projected budget is slightly more than half of the Hollywood Aurora at $185 million.

The casinos are both subject to further approvals, but that is basically a formality from this point. Penn expects construction to start in 2024.

Penn Entertainment is not the only casino operator looking to get in on the new Illinois legal gambling market sooner rather than later. This week, we reported on the developments with Bally’s Chicago casino site, including its expedited deal to buy the current occupiers out of the proposed casino land in the Medinah Temple area of the Windy City.

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