Down on the Levee
A Springfield developer floats a casino plan
April 28, 1994
Deadlines are the mother of invention, and whatever the other qualities of this piece, it was at least novel in blending a commentary on Illinois riverboat gambling with one on flood control.
The Charlie Robbins here referenced was a major Springfield developer and real estate agent. His rather fanciful casino proposal came to naught.
"Call Charlie Robbins," I told my sister when she told me that she had eight inches of water in her basement on Springfield's nearly southwest side. "He's looking for a place to float a riverboat casino."
"Not interested," she said. "He'd probably want me to move the Christmas decorations again."
A few days before the April rains came, Charles Robbins, a Springfield developer and part-owner of the Hilton Hotel, proposed that a riverboat casino be docked on Adams Street downtown. The casino would float in a "canal" dug specially for the purpose that tourists would flock to Springfield to see from as far as Delavan and Bigneck.
Local patriotism inspired the plan. Peoria's riverboat casino on the Illinois is enabling that crumbling Sodom to land conventions of organizations whose members like to wager on more than whether the keynote speaker will remember his punch lines. That leaves Springfield to sustain its service economy by playing host to the likes of Baptists or, worse, state lottery administrators, who disdain games of chance for the same reasons conferencing butchers disdain the meat loaf at lunch.
Having seen so many of the state's rivers turned into highways, I was delighted to hear someone propose turning highways into rivers. But while the poet in me is content to ask how much water it takes to float a daydream, the columnist in me says stick to the facts. For example, the recent rains revealed several other places around the city where floating a boat not only would be plausible from an engineering point of view but practically inevitable. (Water is a lot like developers, in that it gathers where there's already too much of it and never where it's actually needed.) Both the Hilton (formerly the Forum 30) and the Renaissance Hotel across the street have been baled out but the block has never been flooded.
Robbins generously did not insist that the pond abut his own hotel. Years ago, in the days when Illinoisans gambled with public works projects rather than on them, natural waters abounded in downtown Springfield. The city was staked out, after all, in a field with a spring on it, and a few blocks to the south a creek ran through it—the Town Branch of Spring Creek, which skirted what is today the front yard of the Governor's Mansion.
It must be said that, even in it before it was entombed in a pipe, the Town Branch could float nothing larger than a dead cat even after a heavy rain. Today's downtown has several man-made structures that would make better ponds for the punters, such as the sunken parking lot north of the Horace Mann office building. Critics have complained that a casino floated atop a parking lot would rather stretch the intent of the relevant state law, which restricted gambling to riverboats in large part so their patrons might recapture the romance of the old paddle wheelers. I disagree. The romance of the old paddle wheelers consisted mainly of being cheated by card sharps. Besides, Americans now as then don't mind being cheated if they have fun. Just look at the attendance figures for big league baseball.
Protecting the romance matters less to state authorities than protecting the market for casino gambling. To prevent a casino being opened in every drainage ditch and farm pond in Illinois, Gov. Edgar insisted that riverboats float only on "navigable waters." This includes the Sangamon River but does not include Lake Springfield, which technically is still Sugar Creek.
But "navigable" in Illinois is as elastic a term as "riverboat." Certain stretches of the Fox River are so shallow that developers will have to dredge a pool in which a casino boat may cavort; the boat would have to turn around so often on its "cruises"—every four minutes or so—that rather than spin the roulette wheel croupiers will be able to put the little white ball on the table and spin the boat.
The seasonal vagaries of flow in Illinois streams must make the tranquility of a paved pond very appealing to boat captains. The Sangamon River at Springfield was proposed as the site for a boat months ago, but that stream's enthusiasm about being a river also waxes and wanes alarmingly. In August in most years you can't float a carp in the Sangamon, much less a casino. And "straight flush" may describe a card hand on a dry land, but on a Sangamon riverboat in Aprils like this one it would mean being washed right downstream to Beardstown during a flood.
Old timers must laugh at people having to go to such extraordinary lengths to attract gamblers to Springfield. As recently as the late 1940s, Springfield was to gamblers what [State Journal-Register] editorials are to sociological cliche. Craps and poker were regular statehouse amusements among reporters, legislators, and not a few governors. (Lawmakers in those days gambled with their own money.) Patricia Harris came to the capital city as a reporter in 1948, and 25 years later remembered it in a memoir as a place where shop clerks rolled dice with customers for the bill, double or nothing, and where blackjack tables, roulette wheels, and slot machines were as common in clubs as bad suits. No need for expensive infrastructure improvements to attract the suckers; just put a punch board on the counter.
Compared to Springfield's own rich tradition of fleecing out-of-towners, Robbins' proposal looks like penny ante stuff. If sin is what the tourist wants, then Springfield ought to give him sin with a capital S. For a model tourist-oriented gambling district we need not look to Peoria but to our own past. One block north of today's Hilton used to stand the old Levee district where vice in all its forms was on parade for the benefit of visitors. The only infrastructure developers had to install to get around the law in those days was secret entrances.
A few of the town's savvy entrepreneurs have made a start in today's Lincoln Home district toward reviving this tradition of combining tourism and vice. A downtown gambling casino would make a perfect marketing tie-in with the other games of chance being played just four blocks to the south. Imagine an ad taking off on Lindsay's poem, "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"—"Here at midnight, in our little town/A horny figure walks, and will not rest . . . . "
Just because we don't have a navigable river downtown doesn't mean we can't have a Levee. ●