Do Gamblers Like Opera?

Elgin’s Grand Victoria Casino sits just south of downtown, several thousand tons of ostensibly “floating” entertainment.

Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center, home to the fantastic Elgin Symphony Orchestra, is less than a mile away, in the heart of downtown.

Both attract steady audiences to Elgin, though the casino’s numbers are down significantly in the past couple of years.

In theory, both venues should drive crowds to the growing restaurant and bar population that’s trying to take hold in downtown. But in reality, that doesn’t really happen, particularly with casino patrons who have their pick of dining options within the casino’s confines.

Last week, the City Council decided to pursue a study that will evaluate the feasibility of an entertainment venue that could serve both purposes: hosting the ESO and growing arts community while also serving the Grand Victoria’s need to compete with the new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. (Thankfully, we’re not paying for this $45,000 with tax dollars. The Grand Victoria’s parent company, HGMI Gaming, will foot the bill.) While a location hasn’t really been determined, some have floated Festival Park, given its location between the casino and downtown, as a logical space.

Mike Danahey’s wonderfully comprehensive Courier News piece covers the biggest issues: Festival Park is the only green space in downtown; the need to be good neighbors to the townhome residents who have struggled with noisy downtown venues (namely the Main Event), and the odd pairing of gambling and arts. This is the part that really piqued my interest.

Elgin talks a lot about becoming a destination for the arts. The ESO has been an institution since 1950, and we have plenty of smaller groups like Elgin Opera, Janus Theatre, Elgin Theatre Company, Elgin Art Showcase, and others I’m surely forgetting. ArtSpace is becoming a (taxpayer-funded) reality that will bring 55 artists to downtown. SpaceTaste Gallery has periodic shows and really unique things to see.

In that sense, the Hemmens has outlived its useful purpose. Built in 1969, it has only 1200 seats, strangely configured. The acoustics aren’t worthy of the ESO – I was blown away when I went to a recent ESO concert at the Prairie Center in Schaumburg. A new facility is overdue, and would offer more flexibility to serve the growing variety of arts needs.

But I still struggle with how one venue can successfully meet the needs of such disparate groups. As Danahey points out, facilities hosting symphony concerts are inherently structurally different than those hosting casino shows that feature rock and pop acts. A single facility might serve the traditional arts (symphony, opera, stage productions), but would not have the bones needed for a more contemporary act, and vice versa.

Facilities aside, lets consider their respective audiences. Do gamblers like opera? Do we care if they do? I don’t see a lot of mingling of audiences. Would most casino goers consider attending an ESO performance?

I think we need to be realistic that such a venue would have to serve two distinct audiences. While that’s not impossible, it takes very careful planning. Understand who your audiences are. Research their respective needs. Admit that there won’t be much overlap. Work with local complementary businesses to cross-promote where it makes sense. While casino patrons may not attend gallery openings, ESO-goers may be interested. I haven’t see that kind of connection to date, and it’s a relatively easy win.

I do think that a facility bridging the tundra between the casino and downtown may help downtown businesses. I love the openness of Festival Park (see my header picture at the top of this blog), but standing at the casino, looking towards downtown, the empty expanse seems endless. And if you do venture north into downtown, the first block of Grove is a ghost town, with far too many vacant storefronts. The new Prairie Rock Grill will anchor this corner, and hopefully bring in traffic that will help encourage other businesses.

What’s your take?


3 responses to “Do Gamblers Like Opera?

  1. I believe that a new home for the ESO, Elgin Chorus Productions, etc. definitely need a new home worthy of the excellent talents they provide at a very low price when you consider similar venues in Chicago. I’m sure that there are plenty of individuals & businesses that would eventually provide enough funds to rebuild the Hemmens. It is important that we address the situation before the symphony picks up and moves somewhere else.

    I think the best option for the casino to the take the Watch Tower shopping plaza and redevelop it into a hotel/musical venue for whatever musical acts they book. That whole area could benefit from a facelift, and it is very close to the train.

  2. Great points, Kathy – the ESO is such a bargain, and now that the economy is perhaps, maybe trying to come back a bit, corporate donors may be more willing to help rebuild/replace the Hemmens.

    And I LOVE the suggestion of putting it in ClockTower Plaza. I think Danahey’s article mentioned the possibility, but it would be such a great location and solve some of the problems posed by that shopping center. Proximity to the train would help, especially if events timed to end well before the last inbound train (10:10-ish PM, depending on night) or got Metra to add one later inbound run.

  3. Expanding the casino venue seems like a no brainer on the surface. Not only does Queen Victoria have to compete with Des Plaines to the east, but it also has to compete with Aurora’s casino to the south. Both have extended entertainment venues that draw both casino patrons as well as entertainment patrons, not just locally, but from a fairly large radius. And this definitely has the potential to be an out-of-the-box implementation. What’s the alternative? Keep it as is and let the competing casinos provide more & better. This study would have not been launched unless there is already momentum building with Queen Victoria’s operators and behind the city’s closed doors. And it is not about attracting gamblers to opera, it is about expanding the entertainment to more choice of entertainment, thus more people, thus the economic wheel turning.

    But there is plenty of reading between the lines here. To start with, the Gilley’s branding is part of this ( If you look at their venue in Dallas, it consists of TWO venues that support music and show performances (plus additional restaurants/bars/etc). One venue is geared to the rock/pop acts seating 3,000 and one that is geared towered smaller audiences for the arts seating 1,500. If Gilley’s layout is to be mirrored, that closes the gap on a lot of concerns, yes?

    And reading between more lines, the current Hemmes has a price tag of $125M for improvements and modernization and expansion to 2,000 (per city study 5 years ago). The price tag for Gilley’s construction in Dallas was around $20M. (Although this is a pre-construction value that I could not 100% confirm.) It does seem obvious that 20% of the Hemmes cost to get 400% more space is by far the most logical economical choice. But, how the city and non-profits creates this partnership is an unknown. Nor is there mention of if/how the downtown TIF district is affected by this, or how the Elgin City Council special strategic planning sessions view this.

    While expanding into Clock Tower Plaza seems to make some sense, it also seems to go against a few principals in Elgin long term objectives that seems to be set forth by city officials – expanding south of downtown doesn’t help downtown, it doesn’t bridge the gap between promoting unity with the casino and the rest of downtown, and placing it closer to the Metra station doesn’t promote the “let’s keep people downtown” philosophy. It doesn’t even guarantee that people attending shows at new venues are conveniently located within another Metra line stop. Sure, a percentage, but enough to cater to? Maybe this is where additional parking is created and/or intangible economical benefits occur. Additionally, the Nation Street Metra station recently had a planning study for a number of potential changes for this area over the 10 to 20 years ( Interesting info. Overall, there will be a positive benefit to the Clock Tower Plaza with anything related to Queen Victoria’s expansion.

    Festival Park no more? Yea, that would be sad, I enjoy and frequent this park weekly, but even more disappointing is if there isn’t a plan for additional green space. Maybe part of Festival Park disappears. The size of Gilley’s in Dallas is slightly less than half of the open field of Festival Park. Additionally, could some of the building be built under ground? Can some be built into the existing building (4th, 5th, 6th floors?) and/or in the space south of the existing building? Could there be open green space on top of this new building? After all, it is viewable from anywhere on the west side of river. Losing green space is perceived as a negative, but in the National Street Metra Station plans, there is plenty of suggestions for new greens spaces. And what about the current Hemmes building? That will not sit there empty to collect dust. Is that not a potential for green space along the river once demolished? That does creates an extensive green space along the river in the middle of downtown, continuous with Walton Island and in proximity of current and planned future developments.

    Definitely more than meets the eye. But hard to criticize the notion of a study. That’s the only decision made so far, and not a cost to us taxpayers. The real debated will be after the study is released.

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