WILLIAMSON COUNTY -- After nearly a decade of work, nearly everything is in place for construction to begin on the Walker's Bluff Casino project -- everything except a signed project labor agreement.
A PLA, also known as "community workforce agreement," is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with one or more labor organizations that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project.
People close to the project say negotiations to ensure that union labor will be used to build the resort are continuing between Walker's Bluff officials and their partner in the project, Elite Casino Resorts of Iowa.
Without a signed PLA, the Walker's Bluff Casino project could be in jeopardy. Two pieces of legislation are working their way through the General Assembly - one that will require a PLA for any casino built in Illinois. The second bill would open up the gaming license that has been earmarked for Walker's Bluff to other potential casino operators in southern Illinois.
State Sen. Dale Fowler supports the PLA bill and says he'll walk it through the state Senate. He is troubled by the second bill, currently in the state House, which could result in Walker's Bluff losing the casino.
"All of the southern Illinois members of the General Assembly feel this way," he said. "We've always given 100% of our energies to supporting the Walker's Bluff Resort/Casino."
He added the project has been worthy of that support.
"This is about protecting southern Illinois jobs," Fowler said.
In June 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 690, which allowed for new casinos in southern Illinois, Waukegan, Rockford, Danville and the south suburbs of Chicago. In February, the board granted "preliminary suitability" to the applicant from Rockford. No other proposals have gotten as far; there are currently three applicants for the Waukegan license, four from the south suburbs, one from Williamson County (Walker's Bluff) and one applicant from Danville.
Pritzker's signature paved the way for Walker's Bluff owners Cynde and Dave Bunch to move forward with their vision of expanding Walker's Bluff from a winery to a destination resort and casino. Pritzker himself journeyed to Walker's Bluff for the official announcement, an event that was attended by around 200 people including area political and labor leaders.
During a meeting with the Williamson County Board in October 2019, Cynde Bunch told the approximately 100 people gathered that her goals remained unchanged, after announcing a partnership with Elite.
"Early on, we pledged to use Southern Illinois labor, services and products first," said Cynde. "You can see that this room is already filled with members of our hardworking team, from Southern Illinois."
Fowler said the Egyptian Building Trades are willing to make exceptions to the all-union rule, and would allow small, nonunion contractors to join in the project.
"This is solely about the people of southern Illinois going to work," Fowler said
Fowler said there is more at stake here than just the Walker's Bluff project, as he expects a major news conference in a few weeks to announce a PLA has been signed for the Cairo Port project.
In his State of the State address, Pritzker called the Cairo Port project "the biggest economic development project southern Illinois has seen in over a century."
Fowler said the unions are willing to negotiate and work together, using apprenticeship programs and workforce training, a move that could be cost saving for the Walker's Bluff project.
"They are willing to negotiate to help keep construction costs down and the jobs here in southern Illinois," said Fowler.
State Rep. Dave Severin (R-Benton) is also hopeful that the issues can be worked out.
"There are some challenges," he said, "but we hope to move forward and get the gaming license."
Fowler said the commitment to southern Illinois job creation is a bipartisan concern. The PLA bill, House Bill 1281, is sponsored by Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville).
As of Thursday afternoon, talks were still ongoing.
"We are anxious to move forward and build Walker's Bluff Casino Resort and would like to work out a solution with our labor unions so that we can proceed together for the benefit of Southern Illinois," said Cynde Bunch in a statement.
The total cost to build all phases of the Walker's Bluff project is estimated at $180 million. The annual revenue is expected to be $63 million.
It is projected to create 1,010 construction jobs, around 900 of those expected to be filled by southern Illinois labor. People living in other areas of Illinois will fill the remainder.
The annual tax revenue is projected at $4.2 million.
"This is a win for southern Illinois and for Walker's Bluff," said Fowler, referring to a completed PLA.
* Staff writer JJ Bullock of our Springfield bureau contributed to this report.