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'It's a partnership': How a bipartisan effort got Walker's Bluff project across the finish line

  • State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, turns to acknowledge, from left, state Reps. Terri Bryant and Dave Severin and Gov. J.B. Pritzker for "working together across the aisle."

    State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, turns to acknowledge, from left, state Reps. Terri Bryant and Dave Severin and Gov. J.B. Pritzker for "working together across the aisle."
    Holly Kee photo

  • Gov. J.B. Pritzker tells those gathered at Walker's Bluff on Tuesday that it took a bipartisan effort in "the best tradition of democracy" to pass both the gaming bill and Rebuild Illinois.

    Gov. J.B. Pritzker tells those gathered at Walker's Bluff on Tuesday that it took a bipartisan effort in "the best tradition of democracy" to pass both the gaming bill and Rebuild Illinois.
    Holly Kee photo

  • In 2016 supporters of a Walker's Bluff casino marched in the HerrinFesta Italiana parade.

    In 2016 supporters of a Walker's Bluff casino marched in the HerrinFesta Italiana parade.
    Courtesy of Walker's Bluff

  • ABOVE: The picturesque Walker's Bluff complex in Carterville will be home to a casino, thanks to a bipartisan effort by state lawmakers.

    ABOVE: The picturesque Walker's Bluff complex in Carterville will be home to a casino, thanks to a bipartisan effort by state lawmakers.
    File photo

  • Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi shakes hands with Gov. J.B. Pritzker at Walker's Bluff on Tuesday. Alongi has backed the efforts to bring a casino to Walker's Bluff as part of the expansion project envisioned by owner Cynde Bunch. "Everything she touches turns to gold," said Alongi, who expects the project to provide jobs for his town.

    Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi shakes hands with Gov. J.B. Pritzker at Walker's Bluff on Tuesday. Alongi has backed the efforts to bring a casino to Walker's Bluff as part of the expansion project envisioned by owner Cynde Bunch. "Everything she touches turns to gold," said Alongi, who expects the project to provide jobs for his town.
    Holly Kee photo

 
BY HOLLY KEE
hkee@localsouthernnews.com
updated: 7/5/2019 1:49 AM

WILLIAMSON COUNTY -- Cynde Bunch became a familiar face in Springfield as she lobbied for years to bring a second casino to southern Illinois, specifically to Walker's Bluff in Carterville.

She failed, every time, although it didn't hurt that legislators were getting to know her and were becoming familiar with her plans to turn Walker's Bluff into a full resort and convention center.

Then, in 2018, gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker came to Carterville to campaign, hammering on one major theme -- jobs. Bunch read the political tea leaves and saw her opening.

She saddled up and returned to Springfield, where she and community relations consultant Emily Burke made the all-too-familiar rounds one more time.

The 2018 election left southern Illinois as an oasis of Republican legislators amid sweeping Democratic gains everywhere else. Bunch and Burke realized that even more, getting bipartisan support was going to be essential.

"A lot of people don't understand how the process works," said state Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg), who, along with state Rep. Dave Severin (R-Benton) and Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), got behind Bunch early to help work their fellow legislators.

Fowler said it's not as simple as voting on a single item. "There are a lot of components that make up the bill," he said.

As a freshman state senator last year, Fowler said he became more schooled in the behind-the-scenes negotiations of getting legislation passed.

The bill that provided the casino license to Walker's Bluff had several components, one of which was sports wagering. Just when it seemed like things would go forward, something else would happen to complicate the measure.

"Other parts of the state wanted to get in on the action," said Fowler. "Everyone wanted a small piece of the pie."

Fowler said that Pritzker asked the legislators to "step across the aisle" to get things done, disregarding party lines.

The legislators responded. Fowler described the process as akin to working a puzzle.

"The pieces are all there but they have to fit together perfectly to finish," he said. "Every time I'd think we were close, something else could come up."

Fowler said he felt it was important to keep pushing, buoyed by the promise of jobs for southern Illinois and the commerce that hopefully will come in the wake of the casino and resort becoming reality

"I would think of the amount of people -- busloads and busloads of people from southern Illinois -- who traveled to Springfield over the past 2 years," he said, "people who came to support the resort ... the number of trips that Cynde and Emily made. They never gave up."

So Fowler, Severin and Bryant dug in their heels.

"We kept chipping away at it and were able to get the job done," he said.

On Tuesday, speaking at Walker's Bluff, Pritzker referred to the gaming bill and his $45 billion capital program, Rebuild Illinois, as the product of bipartisan action.

"After years of passing the buck, Democrats and Republicans came together," he said, "They did it in the very best tradition of democracy -- a bipartisan commitment to better the lives of the people."

"It took people walking across the aisle to talk to one another to get things done," he finished.

Pritzker specifically commended the southern Illinois team of legislators, all Republicans.

"You're among the biggest reasons we're standing here at Walker's Bluff today," he said, turning to speak directly to Fowler, Bryant and Severin. "It's a partnership. We're getting things done in Springfield."

Bunch and Burke could not stop smiling.

"I feel fantastic!" said Bunch, who also announced that Burke has joined the Walker's Bluff team as senior vice president of project development and chief community engagement officer.

Bunch hopes to break ground for the project on Labor Day.