A look back... Par-A-Dice Casino changed landscape of city

Jeanette Brickner
The East Peoria City Council, instrumental in bringing the Par-A-Dice Casino to East Peoria, from left are Jeff Giebelhausen, Mayor Dick Dodson, Chuck Williams, Charles Dobbelaire and Terry Tucker. The are pictured here in 1990 with state Sen. Dick Luft (holding key to the city), who was also instrumental.

Imagine what East Peoria would be like without the Par-A-Dice Casino. Since the Par-A-Dice came to the city in 1993, City Administrator Tom Brimberry said East Peoria has easily earned over $100 million in revenue.

Brimberry said the Par-A-Dice has done more for the city than just bring in revenue; it brought in development.

“Think what North Main Street would be like without the Par-A-Dice having come to the shores of the Illinois River there. It made Harbor Pointe possible,” Brimberry said.

Brimberry also cited the revitalization of Jonah’s restaurant, Shell gas station, Burger Barge, 5th Quarter, Stoney Creek Inn, the Hampton and the Par-A-Dice Hotel as other businesses that developed from the boat coming to shore.

Riverboat gambling talks

It was 25 years ago that talks began about riverboat gambling coming to the banks of the Illinois River.

According to the Illinois Gaming Board, The Riverboat Gambling Act was enacted in February 1990. Illinois was the second state in the nation to legalize riverboat gambling. In September 1991, the first riverboat casino began operation in Alton.

There are now 10 casinos operating in Illinois, including the Par-A-Dice Casino in East Peoria.

Long-time East Peoria city attorney Dennis Triggs recalls when he first heard about the news.

“I was with a couple people. I’m going to guess it was then-Commissioner Terry Tucker and Director of Public Affairs Jay Thompson. I think we were in representative Don Saltsman’s office in Peoria somewhere, sort of in a back room, and he said something like, ‘What do you think about bringing back riverboat gambling?’ That was such a strange bizarre thought. I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Triggs said.

Saltsman, as Triggs recalled, said a lot of gambling goes on anyway and that the state was looking at legalizing riverboat gambling. There was to be one boat between LaSalle-Peru and Beardstown on the Illinois River.

“The idea was that it wasn’t just about gambling but it would be historic. People would dress in era costumes and probably have other entertainment that was associated with the old steam riverboats,” Triggs said.

Time went on and the concept of riverboat gambling began to show up in the news as the General Assembly considered it in the late ’80s.

“I can remember driving to work across the Murray Baker Bridge and looking off to the East Peoria side and thinking, gee, maybe there could be a riverboat there,” Triggs said.

During this time, Dick Dodson was East Peoria’s mayor, and Triggs said they began talking about having a riverboat dock in the city. However, it wasn’t that simple.

“I think it was clear the whole idea was to provide one for Peoria,” Triggs said. “I even think there was some thought that some folks, some places along the river, might not want it because of (illegal) gambling already going on.”

Legislation was passed in 1990 and East Peoria began an aggressive campaign.

Triggs said Peoria Mayor Jim Maloof was not on board to support riverboat gambling at that time. In a Peoria Journal Star article in the late ’80s Maloof was quoted as telling the Peoria Kiwanis, “My personal belief is I don’t know if we really need it. The flip side is it may go to East Peoria.”

Dick Dodson

Dodson remembers the riverboat gambling controversy well. He has several scrapbooks with articles about the topic from his time as mayor in East Peoria. From his East Peoria home, he talked about the history of how the Par-A-Dice came to East Peoria recently. Brimberry attended the meeting at Dodson’s home.

“We first heard that riverboat legislation was being kicked around. I think they were going to issue five licenses on the Illinois River,” Dodson said, adding that the Peoria area was a target for riverboat gaming.

Early on, Dodson said the East Peoria City Council decided to “raise their hand” and show interest.

“Part of the reasoning was that there was some thought that there may be two boats, and if there was, it would be appropriate to have one on each side of the river,” he said.

But, this was not to be the case.

Then Mayor Jim Maloof and Peoria city leaders were not so sure if they wanted a riverboat to dock on the Peoria side.

They were also getting a lot of feedback from the Peoria-area pastors who were against gambling coming to town.

Dodson said there were many key people who helped bring the riverboat to town, including Thompson, who was the director of public affairs/city manager, Saltsman, state Sen. Dick Luft, Gov. James Thompson and Triggs.

“I’m absolutely certain without those two gentlemen we wouldn’t have been in the running,” Dodson said.

Thompson, Dodson said, was a “bulldog who made it his interest to bring in Springfield often.”

“He was familiar with legislators and gaming board members, and Dennis Triggs has few equals in the state as far as municipal law,” Dodson said.

So, it seems the riverboat would float right on over to the East Peoria side of the Illinois River without any turbulent waves, but the waters got choppy. Dodson mentioned the animosity between the two cities.

"Back when I was in high school playing sports, there’s trash talking that goes on out in the field. Most of it’s not very polite,” Dodson said. “One of the rags that we caught was that East Peoria was a dump, and it was. Along Camp Street where was Peoria dumped their garbage and burned it night and day. There was a constant blue haze that hung over there. That burned into my brain.”

Although it was just business, Dodson said things got vicious when Peoria knew East Peoria was pursuing the boat heavily. Dodson pointed out one Journal Star article that called the situation “the cross river coup of the century.”

While East Peoria was aggressive to secure the riverboat, Dodson said Peoria was more complacent. However, Dodson said he and Maloof both knew that gaming would bring revenue to the communities.

“I think the Peoria Chamber was a little ambivalent and I think the (Peoria) council was split. Our council was four square. I had a great council,” Dodson said.

Dale Burklund

A key player in the location of the Par-A-Dice was Dale Burklund.

Burklund, 89, who owns Burklund Distributing, a  wholesale distributor of convenience store items said he was on a cruise when he heard an announcement that Illinois had been approved for riverboat gambling.

“I said, ‘Oh man, I have a great place for that.”

Burklund owned the property where the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino is currently located.

“It all kind of fell into place,” he said.

Burklund said he interviewed 350 people before he found 21 who could invest in the endeavor, and the investors bought the ground.

The East Peoria Riverboat Corp. was formed and Burklund was named the president. Those in the corporation had to go through a 107-page background check with the police and the state of Illinois, Burklund said.

Ironically, Burklund said he was not allowed to gamble since he was on the board.

“My wife could, so once in a while she would blow $20,” Burklund said.

But before the boat sailed to East Peoria, there was the prospect of it locating to Peoria. Jim Jumer, then-owner of Jumer’s Castle Lodge, had also applied for a license.

“That was problematic because he was also looking to get a license to operate out of the Quad Cities. As we read the statue, you could only have one license, so Peoria was relying upon Jumer’s who was going to have difficulty because he was applying in two different places,” Triggs said.

Triggs said he attended many Illinois Gaming Board meetings in Chicago about the gambling license.

“We followed it and supported it and pushed it every step of the way,” Triggs said.

Burklund said he had no doubt where the riverboat would go.

“We have one of the best spots in the state right on the Illinois River between Chicago and St. Louis. There was no doubt where it was going to go. It was my land,” Burklund said. “We only opened long enough in Peoria to get it built in East Peoria.”

Dodson recalls the spot where the Par-A-Dice is now located and how it came to pass.

Dodson said the late Pete Rickard, who became one of the members of the riverboat commission, had the vision to clean up a blighted area.

“He was sitting up there on Star Rim Court looking right down what’s now the Par-A-Dice property and there is 1,500 — I don’t know how many wrecked cars. There was a junk yard there, just directly north,” Dodson said.

Chuck Hurst owned the property, and Dodson said it was a “logistics and legal nightmare” getting the area cleaned up.

The city purchased the property from Hurst.

“Once again, Triggs found a way,” Dodson said.

Burklund purchased property next to where the junk yard was located, Dodson said.

Before East Peoria was awarded the gambling license there was some tough negotiating to be done. Triggs said the Gaming Board hired Mort Freidman as the Gaming Board administrator.

“I think they chose him because he was absolutely a straight shooter,” Triggs said. “That was his reputation, because you’ve got to realize with the legalization of gambling in the state of Illinois, there was enormous opposition and people were concerned about corruption.”

During meetings with Freidman who reviewed the applications, he informed Triggs and other East Peoria officials they had to share revenue with Peoria.

“We had some tough meetings with him where he basically told us we weren’t going to get a license unless we made accommodations to Peoria. That really cuts to the heart of the matter,” Triggs said. “The whole theory for having gambling was to help rather depressed areas.”

About this time Peoria hired Peter Korn as its new city manager. Korn had his own ideas to get the riverboat to Peoria.

“We entered into negotiations with Peter Korn and ended up with the proposition that the boat would dock in East Peoria and we would get any spin off development,” Triggs said. “Any of the traffic in terms of overnight or sales, we would get the majority of it but the revenue would be shared 50/50 and it has been, every penny.”

“We wanted to be fair to both sides of the river,” Burklund said. “What the riverboat earns, East Peoria gets half and Peoria gets half. That’s what built the new police station in downtown Peoria.”

The Par-A-Dice began operation in Peoria on Nov. 20, 1991, and moved to East Peoria on May 18, 1993.

Par-A-Dice Capt. Patrick O’Donohue said there have been two boats in operation.  The original paddle wheeler, which first cruised in November 1991 and the current vessel which was placed in operation in June 1994.

The name Par-A-Dice came from an old tavern in East Peoria operated by Joe Rafool called the Paradise.

Cori Rutherford is the vice president and general manager of the Par-A-Dice Hotel and Casino.

The Par-A-Dice employs 736 people and revenues vary by season, Rutherford said. Monthly revenues total $6.8 million to $8 million and $90 million annually.

The smoking ban in 2008 and video gaming has hurt the Par-A-Dice, Rutherford said.

“We do not gross the revenues we did 10 years ago, not even close,” Rutherford said, adding they are doing all they can to remain competitive, including an updated casino floor, amazing food product and offering more choices in gaming product.

The Par-A-Dice has 29 table games and 1,057 slot machines.

“We are a very large part of this community. We support many organizations and will continue to do so. We enjoy what we do and have some of the best team members in the industry,” Rutherford said.

Burklund said being involved with the Par-A-Dice was the best learning experience in his life and taught him how to work with other people, how the government worked and how much work had to be done to satisfy a report.

“It made us all better businessmen,” Burklund said.