When things look right and sound right, chances are they usually are right.
Last November, when Hard Rock opened its temporary casino in Rockford, Illinois, it was aptly titled “A Hard Rock Opening Act.” Here was an internationally known brand name offering itself to a community that not only wanted casino gaming, but wanted this specific brand of casino gaming — something 815 Entertainment President Dan Fischer recounted last Wednesday during the ceremonial groundbreaking for the $310 million permanent venue in northern Illinois.
Fischer detailed a poll that local DJ and Wednesday’s master of ceremonies Jon “Captain Jack” Schulz conducted in the summer of 2019 in which the public “had two other casino choices and a no-casino option in a public poll. And I can tell you as you go through, whether you’re accepted or not into a community, and how gaming is introduced is always interesting, but to see results — 80 percent for Hard Rock on this site with those three other options, that’s incredible.”
While most metrics gauging a casino’s success or failure revolve around revenue, a temporary casino offers caveats against such short-term judgments. In the most notable case for the “Opening Act,” it has offered only electronic gaming devices and slots entering its 12th month of operation — there are no table games and no retail sportsbook to provide a picture of the full potential both Hard Rock and the city hope to realize.
There were renderings of what that casino will look like on display in the pop-up tent Wednesday, complete with Hard Rock’s trademark guitar that will get a Rockford-specific makeover with favorite son, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen’s readily recognizable black-and-white checkerboard motif. But as construction begins on the venue set to open late next year, it is clear a foundation between operator and community has already set.
Mayor pleased with Hard Rock partnership
At the @HRRockford groundbreaking ceremony, which is a who’s who of local dignitaries pic.twitter.com/ZTfhu3qTJT
— Kevin Haas (@KevinMHaas) September 28, 2022
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara began his second term in May 2021, having seen the good of the city being one of six locations granted a new casino license in the 2019 gaming expansion bill Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law and the challenges of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. McNamara was quick to spread credit to all parties involved, noting the project was able to move forward quickly because everyone was aligned.
“I would say depending on the day you asked me, it’s an incredibly stressful process,” McNamara said with a laugh about pulling it all together. “But we were really fortunate, and I mean this. We have an amazing team in the city. We had to do everything in 120 days, including the public hearing and getting approved, which is unheard of. And we did it.
“We did it because we knew we didn’t just want a casino, we wanted a true partner, and we knew that we wanted to be the ones who selected it. We took some grief, it was a little stressful at times, but it obviously worked out.”
McNamara is most proud of being able to partner with Hard Rock to expand Rockford Promise, which offers the opportunity for Rockford public school students who attain a 3.0 GPA to attend Northern Illinois University in nearby DeKalb tuition-free. The $25,000 check Hard Rock provided at the opening of the temporary casino aided a program that has helped pay tuition for 250 students to attend NIU, with 70% of those students minorities and 63% first-generation college students.
“They have truly followed through on every single promise that they’ve made and they’ve reached every promise, and then they’ve exceeded them,” McNamara said of Hard Rock’s impact on the community. “And I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise, but it certainly brings a smile to my face.”
Keeping the main stage warm with the Opening Act
Hard Rock Rockford construction has begun! Hit ❤️ to celebrate this win for the Rockford region! Follow @HRRockford for construction updates and what’s happening at the opening act (temporary) casino location. @CheapTrickRick
📸@thekevinhaas /used with permission @RRCurrent pic.twitter.com/fvA2sd0Zcv
— Rockford Area CVB (@gorockford) September 29, 2022
Hard Rock Casino President Geno Iafrate, a 25-year veteran of venue staff building, likes the momentum the Opening Act created in the groundbreaking, but he may face the biggest challenge of all parties because the ramp up to 1,000 employees for the permanent venue is more than triple the size of his current staff. He talked wistfully about what he has built in the 11-plus months the temporary venue has operated but is eager to sustain the momentum over the next year-plus.
“It’ll be bittersweet to see the Opening Act go away,” he said. “But it’s been great for us because we have almost 300 team members at the Opening Act, and we need close to 1,000. Over 80 percent of our team members had never worked in a casino before.
“That Opening Act is really what it’s described to be. Every headline entertainer you’ve ever heard of started as an opening act. It’s really great to gain that experience of that base group of 300 team members, so that when we come over here to the big joint, we’ll have a really strong employee base ready to rock.”
Iafrate also pointed out the importance of the Opening Act being that first contact with the city, and the success has led to positive business and a positive relationship with the Rockford community.
“It’s our introduction to the market with the brand, the introduction to the market of our loyalty program,” he stated. “I think coming in with the Opening Act has allowed us to integrate very deeply in the community and make a difference in a relatively short period of time. And that will grow exponentially in the big joint.”
He confirmed the temporary venue has space for a retail sportsbook, and the 815 Entertainment Group applied for that license with the IGB in August. Hard Rock also applied for the Management Services Provider license required to offer mobile wagering in Illinois in August, though there is no definitive timeline when those could be approved by the state agency.
Beating Beloit to the punch
Hard Rock’s construction timeline to open in late 2023 if all goes to plan — Ringland-Johnson Construction President Brent Johnson noted there will be 7,000 truckloads shipped from a quarry and scrapers will move 84,000 cubic yards of earth in the early stages — means the opening of the permanent venue would be around the time when Ho-Chunk Nation could break ground on its casino just over the state line approximately 20 miles to the north in Wisconsin.
McNamara pointed out getting to market first was “critical” in getting to the finish line first and expressed confidence Rockford “will compete very well against whatever Beloit will potentially do.”
Iafrate took a slightly different tack, offering that his past experiences showed a geographic region with multiple gaming options usually leads to better business.
“We’re going to spend marketing to bring customers to the region, they’re going to spend money to bring customers to the region,” he said. “Net-net, the region is going to benefit. We don’t view it as a competitive threat, we view it as a net positive for the region of northern Illinois.”
Photo: Chris Altruda