- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The owners of an East St. Louis casino plan to purchase the struggling Fairmount Park racetrack, provided Illinois lawmakers agree to allow a gambling expansion that would bring slot machines to the state’s five horse racing venues.

Employee-owned CQ Holdings Inc., owner of the riverfront Casino Queen, on Tuesday announced a tentative agreement to buy the 90-year-old track located 8 miles to the east in Collinsville. Fairmount Park would operate as a subsidiary of the parent company and retain its existing management.

The deal comes as lawmakers facing a roughly $6 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 again are considering an expansion of gambling that could include a Chicago casino. Racing industry officials want approval to add slots to keep up with nearby states that have already paired casinos with ponies.

The East St. Louis casino and city officials had opposed slots at Fairmount Park, fearing revenue losses and a hit to a municipal revenue stream that relies on the Mississippi River riverboat for nearly 40 percent of its budget.

“We needed to find a solution that bolstered the racetrack for the future without compromising the operations of the Casino Queen, and this acquisition affords us the opportunity to do just that,” Jeff Watson, the casino’s president and general manager, said in a written statement.

Fairmount Park President Brian Zander called the preliminary deal a “mutually beneficial agreement” reached “after months of negotiations.” Track and casino officials declined to further discuss the planned purchase.

Glen Berman, executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, called the agreement “an encouraging sign that something might happen” in Springfield. Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn twice vetoed gambling expansion bills, but his successor, Republican Bruce Rauner, has huddled with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and legislative leaders on a potential Chicago casino.

“Anytime you remove an opponent from the picture, you would expect the job to be easier,” Berman added.

Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat, has filed two bills that would create state-owned casinos in Chicago, the city’s south suburbs and in Lake, Vermilion and Winnebago counties. Before the Casino Queen-Fairmount Park deal was announced, Rita’s proposed legislation explicitly excluded slots from Fairmount Park.

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said his members continue to oppose gambling expansion, two years after the introduction of video gambling brought slot-like terminals to gas stations, convenience stores and coin-operated laundries across the state.

“The market is already saturated,” he said. “There’s not room for more casinos.”

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier

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