Illinois: Uncertainty clouds future of Waukegan casino project amid revived legal dispute

A legal battle surrounding the license bidding process for a Waukegan casino in Illinois has resurfaced, casting a shadow of uncertainty over a project that has been in the works for nearly two years. 

The situation has escalated since Full House Resorts, the winning bidder for the casino venture, received approval to begin construction and inaugurated a temporary casino named “The Temporary at American Place” approximately six months ago. Now, a decision by the Illinois 1st District Appellate Court has raised questions about the fate of the project.

The journey of Full House Resorts commenced with a competitive bidding process that initially involved three other contenders. In November 2019, the Waukegan City Council recommended Full House Resorts, North Point Casino, and Midwest Gaming to the Illinois Gaming Board for further consideration. During this selection process, the bid submitted by the Forest County Potawatomi Community was rejected.

The legal dispute surrounding the casino license has escalated over the past years, with the tribe arguing the process was “rigged.” The lawsuit alleges that former Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham instructed Waukegan City Council members on which bids to approve.

In December 2021, the Forest County Potawatomi Community attempted to halt the process by submitting a request to a Cook County court. However, the request was dismissed by Cook County Judge Cecilia Horan. The following day, the Illinois Gaming Board granted Full House Resorts a preliminary finding of suitability, effectively giving the green light to proceed with planning and constructing a casino in Waukegan.

The recent ruling by the 1st District Appellate Court has injected a renewed sense of uncertainty into the entire process. The court’s decision, issued through a written opinion on July 28, directed the Cook County court to allow the Forest County Potawatomi Community an opportunity to join the ongoing proceedings related to the Waukegan casino license.

Waukegan's The Temporary casino

The focus now shifts to key stakeholders, including the gaming board, the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, and the city of Waukegan. The parties must decide whether to contest the appellate court’s decision by appealing to the Illinois Supreme Court or preparing for a hearing in Cook County court. 

Presently, no final determinations have been reached, and the stakeholders have a 35-day window from the ruling to file an appeal or a notice for a rehearing, reports Chicago Tribune. It would be legal for the city to restart the tender process should the tribe’s lawsuit prove successful, even though a temporary license has already been issued to Full House Resorts.

Jeff Crawford, the attorney general representing the Forest County Potawatomi Community, expressed optimism about the court’s acknowledgment of the merits of their claims, particularly those against Waukegan.

“The court acknowledged Potawatomi’s detailed allegations of the city’s failure to lawfully conduct the casino selection process and recognized that retracting the current casino license and repeating the casino selection process would remedy Potawatomi’s claims,” Crawford stated as per the cited source.

Alex Stolyar, Full House’s senior vice president and chief development officer, conveyed that the company is carefully reviewing the appellate court’s decision before making a strategic move. “Our legal team is reviewing the ruling, and we’re waiting on that,” Stolyar explained.

In the meantime, Full House is moving ahead with plans for its permanent site. The $400 million full property named will be named “American Place” and is expected to be up and running by early 2026.