By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Tucked away at the corner of Riverside Boulevard and Perryville Road is a small gambling parlor that prides itself on its relaxed, quiet atmosphere.
It has a fireplace, a few leather chairs and a full bar where artisanal drinks are served.
“It’s just a very quit, quaint setting with easy listening type of music,” said Nancy Appell, owner of The Parlor, 4001 N. Perryville Road. “It’s just really warm and inviting. It’s kind of a chill place to go.”
That subdued atmosphere stands in contrast to the 37,000-square-foot rock-and-roll themed Rockford casino called A Hard Rock Opening Act, where hundreds of slot machines as well as electronic table games await people ready to test their luck.
The difference in atmosphere is a good thing for both businesses, both Hard Rock officials and local gambling parlor owners interviewed for this story say. They expect customers to “self-select,” as Hard Rock Rockford CEO Geno Iafrate puts it, and patronize the place that matches the type of experience they want.
“It’s kind of nice to have different options,” Appell said. “There may be nights where you just want a little place to go and have the opportunity to gather with friends in a quiet setting.”
The casino’s arrival in Rockford earlier this month is expected to give a jolt to the local economy through increased tourism and tax revenue. It also comes as bars and restaurants work to recover from prolonged shutdowns meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus last year. The five gaming machines those establishments are allowed to have can be a key source of additional revenue.
“The additional traffic that we bring in from outside the region that’s going to want to experience our casino, I think that is also great for our neighbors, whether you’re a restaurant, a hotel or a gas station,” Iafrate said. “I think it’s an economic lift for the entire community.”
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There are nearly 100 establishments with video gambling terminals in Rockford. Gamblers put about $15.8 million into those machines in October, losing more than $3.8 million, according to the Illinois Gaming Board’s October report.
“We’re still making money out there and we’re making the state money and the cities money. I don’t think that can be forgotten,” said Jay Gesner, who owns Stumpy’s Pub, Souse’s Lounge and two Miss Jill’s gaming parlors in the area. “The (video gaming terminals) in the bars bring in more money than every casino other than Rivers.”
Gesner, who is also national director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, said he thinks the convenience of smaller parlors will keep them competitive after the casino’s arrival. Bars and slot parlors won’t have the same squeeze for parking as the casino, and they’re better suited for people who may only want to spend a few dollars at the machines, he said.
“We’re not the first (city) to have a casino. The local bars or parlors, do they take a hit? Yeah, but they seem to be able to get through it and have our share of the business,” he said. “We aren’t going anywhere and we still want to be part of the community.”
Dan Fischer, who owns a chain of gaming parlors across the state and is the chief investor in Rockford’s casino, said “friendly competition” is welcome.
“There’s some crossover in play and some of those patrons, no doubt,” he said. “But it’s definitely a different experience and a different product available for them in a casino environment: Bigger jackpots. Game variety is much higher.”
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Appell, the owner of The Parlor, agreed with Fischer’s take. She expects her customers will be those that gravitate toward a quieter experience.
“We really take pride in getting to know our customers and having repeat customers,” Appell said. “It’s a place you go and when you come back somebody’s going to know your name.”
She added that the casino’s arrival is a good thing for Rockford because of the jobs it brings into the community and the increased economic activity.
Mayor Tom McNamara said he has heard concern from some bar and restaurant owners about competition from the casino, but he expects them to retain their customer base.
“So many of those wonderful locally owned businesses, they’ve worked really hard to establish that consistent clientele, their regulars, they’re going to continue to be there for them,” he said.
He said the city has tried to support small business owners, particular bars and restaurants that have struggled because of the coronavirus related shutdowns. Among the city’s efforts was rebating liquor license fees by 50% and forgiving more than $930,000 in small business loans given to about 70 companies.
“We’re going to continue to be there for our local businesses,” McNamara said. “We want everyone to win.”