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Grand Victoria Casino 20th Anniversary

Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin is pulling out all the stops to celebrate its 20th anniversary next month, casino officials said.


"It's two decades," said casino marketing manager Marilou Pilman. "For a business to say they've been around that long, I think we realized that's something that we definitely should celebrate."


The casino, which opened to the public Oct. 6, 1994, will be giving away $62,000 every Tuesday in October, including giveaways at 2 and 8 p.m. where one person at each drawing will walk away with $20,000, she said. More customers will win various cash prizes.


The casino will offer 1994-era prices, including $6.99 lunch and $8.99 dinner Oct. 6 at Indulge Show Kitchen Buffet. Along with $20 free cash play and $20 surf and turf specials at Buckinghams Steakhouse and Lounge, said marketing supervisor Melinda Pfeifer-Borucki.


"We're going to be turning back the clock," she said. "We're hoping that it draws enough excitement to bring people in here."


Also, there will be cupcakes, prize giveaways and special entertainment throughout the month, plus a formal, invitation-only anniversary celebration Oct. 4.


A boon for the city


The city of Elgin has benefited greatly from its share of casino revenues, of up to $20 million to $25 million per year until about five years ago, said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain, who plans to attend the Oct. 4 event.


The money has paid for innumerable projects over the years, such as The Centre of Elgin and countless local arts and nonprofit programs, Kaptain said.


Also, the casino's charitable arm, the Grand Victoria Foundation, has contributed money locally and statewide via grants, said Kaptain, who served on its environmental grants committee in the 1990s.


"Virtually everybody in Elgin has been touched by the money from the casino in one way or the other," he said.


Before the casino was built, people on both ends of the spectrum made extreme predictions, Kaptain said.


"People thought we're going to have all this economic development downtown. People also thought there would be prostitutes and muggings at every corner. That never happened," he said.


"What really happened is that a business came to Elgin, and they have a very profitable business and employ a lot of people."


Moving forward, however, the city -- which budgeted $13 million in casino revenues for this year -- has to continue diversifying its revenue and not overly rely on any single source of income, Kaptain said.


Cruising the river


The casino employed more than 2,500 people when it first opened, but that has dwindled to a little more than 800 over the years, Pilman said.


"We certainly were busier back then," she said.


A big reason was the boat was required to leave its dock and cruise the Fox River for people to gamble, she said. Cruises, which generally lasted 1½ hours, ended when dockside gambling was enacted in 2000.


Gregg Axtell, the casino's director of engineering and maintenance, will celebrate his 20th year at the casino in November.


Back then, Grand Victoria had a full marine crew that maneuvered the boat about 1,600 feet up the river and then floated back to the dock, he said.


The crew stayed in place until the boat was reclassified as a permanently moored vessel in 2010, Axtell said.


"My job didn't change as much. We just didn't have to run the generators as much," he said. "As far as engineering goes, stuff is still running, stuff is still breaking down, and we still have to fix it."


New competition


The casino has to contend with competition from Rivers Casino, which opened in 2011 in Des Plaines, and most recently from the video gambling industry, Pilman said.


Being innovative while sticking to a family-friendly formula is key, she said.


Grand Victoria is the only casino in the Chicago area where people can eat without having to go into the gambling area, she said, which means diners younger than 21 are welcome.


The remodeled Indulge Buffet was unveiled just after Easter 2013, and a renovated casino floor opened Jan. 1.


The casino floor is more spacious, with a red, purple and silver color scheme that is much brighter than the old gold, brown and mahogany tones, Pilman said.


"It's a lot more contemporary today than 20 years ago, when it was more of a Victorian feel," she said.


A fortuitous byproduct of declining admissions was having enough space to reintroduce a stage bar on the boat that offers live entertainment Thursday through Sunday, she said.


Swing band Miss Jubilee & the Humdingers will perform 3 to 7 p.m. Oct. 6.


Grand Victoria traditionally has had a "more mature" clientele, so it has made an effort to attract younger patrons with restaurants like Prime BurgerHouse, Pilman said.


Still, the casino cherishes its longtime customers, she said.


"We know who's having a grandchild, whose son and daughter graduated from college," she said. "They almost become like a second family."


Entertainment key


The casino held a very successful second summer concert series at nearby Festival Park, Pilman said.


The casino's Fourth of July concert and fireworks show attracted an estimated 20,000 people. The biggest concert of the season was Deep Purple, attended by about 6,000 people.


"Events like the concert series make us different from the competition," Pilman said. "No other casino in the area can say they bring the outdoor concerts like we do."


The casino and the city are hoping to partner to offer expanded entertainment, possibly with a permanent venue at Festival park, Kaptain said.


Kaptain and City Manager Sean Stegall are meeting with casino officials on Wednesday, he said.


"We're at the point that we need to start looking at arts and entertainment as an economic development tool, and we have to start looking at Grand Victoria as a key to this."