A gambling complex in Chicago’s River West is now officially Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pick for the city’s long-awaited casino license — an endeavor that could boost Chicago’s finances, factor into the coming mayoral election and transform the neighborhood.
Lightfoot chose to advance a $1.74 billion casino, hotel and entertainment development at what is now the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant. Rhode Island-based Bally’s, which owns and manages 14 casinos in 10 states, hopes to make this one the flagship of its chain.
Though many hurdles remain before anyone will be betting at blackjack tables along Grand Avenue, a deal for the mayor to land a casino in Chicago represents the fulfillment of one of her goals as she heads into an expected reelection bid.
A visibly jubilant Lightfoot took a victory lap at the announcement, noting former mayors tried for decades to get a casino. Mayor Richard M. Daley tried several times to get a Chicago casino, Lightfoot said, but the state legislature had “no appetite” to help the city.
“We got this done,” Lightfoot said.
The casino, Lightfoot said, sends a signal of Chicago’s ongoing economic recovery after it was battered by COVID-19 and civil unrest. And, she said, it’s a better alternative to residents going to Indiana to gamble.
“With due respect to the Hoosiers, Chicago money must be spent in Chicago,” Lightfoot said.
Bally’s succeeded for a variety of reasons, Lightfoot said, including that they don’t have a competing casino in the Chicagoland region and reached a labor peace agreement with the Chicago Federal of Labor.
“We are confident that Bally’s Tribune Publishing Center development will shore up the City’s pension funds, create thousands of good-paying jobs, and lead to a bright financial future for our city,” she said in a news release, asserting the plan will generate 3,000 annual construction jobs and 3,000 permanent casino jobs.
The complex will include an exhibition hall, 500-room hotel, a 3,000 seat theater, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants and, for gambling, 3,400 slots and 170 game tables, Lightfoot announced.
But she and developers still have to persuade a majority of aldermen, the Illinois Gaming Board and wary neighbors before the deal is done.
If approved, Bally’s aims to open a temporary casino nearby by the second quarter of 2023, with the permanent casino slated to open in the first quarter of 2026. Several speakers representing labor and other interests talked of how the project could provide a sorely needed post-COVID-19 boost to the city, particularly in the hospitality sector where the pandemic’s impact has been severe.
The City Council approval process could be bumpy. Some aldermen are likely to complain that they didn’t get more say in selecting the winning bidder. Others might balk due to distaste for gambling or concern about traffic. But Lightfoot will argue that the casino makes big tax hikes less likely in the future, a message that’s likely to appeal to aldermen who dislike nothing more than property tax increases.
Soo Kim, the 47-year-old chairman of Bally’s and founding partner of New York hedge fund Standard General, the casino company’s largest shareholders, was on hand for the announcement Thursday. He welcomed the news, but acknowledged the challenges at hand.
“We understand all of the promises that this casino allows the city of Chicago to keep and the state of Illinois, and we accept and bear those responsibilities,” Kim said. “We’re excited for the future. And understand that this is really just the first step. Now we need to go and make our case before the City Council.”
Kim, who noted he was in high school when Chicago took its first unsuccessful run at landing a casino in 1992, soon after Illinois legalized riverboat gambling in the state, paid homage to the significance of the city’s 30-year quest, while relishing the opportunity to grow his gambling company.
“We’re really excited about the economic prospects for us, Bally’s Corporation,” Kim said. ” I think we’re going to do well.”
Even though it will draw some opposition, a Chicago casino has the potential to help the city’s long-troubled finances and give Lightfoot a major political victory as she heads into her reelection campaign. As mayor, Lightfoot has struggled to promote her legislative agenda in Springfield, with the casino bill being a critical exception.
In 2020, Lightfoot successfully pushed lawmakers to authorize a Chicago casino, giving her a win that had eluded mayors for decades. Lightfoot also succeeded in her efforts to get the tax structure changed so as to make a casino more attractive for potential bidders. Even with those changes, the city struggled to attract interest from heavy hitters in the gambling industry but three firms submitted five bids for the city to consider.
After unveiling five competing casino bids last year, Lightfoot said she wanted to “get a finalist to recommend to the (Illinois Gaming Board) by sometime in the first quarter of next year.” That goal wasn’t met as the city announced plans to host a series of community forums, giving Lightfoot more time to unveil her choice to the public.
If a majority of aldermen give Lightfoot’s preferred choice the thumbs-up, it will then head to the state gaming board for an up-or-down vote on whether to award a license to the developer of a Chicago casino. The city hopes to use casino funds to shore up pension-related budget holes, a point she’s likely to reiterate throughout the process.
Asked about the City Council special committee she created to handle casino issues, which has only met once and had minimal input, Lightfoot said its goal was to keep aldermen closely involved in the process. She also rebutted criticism that the process has moved too fast, saying “there’s nothing about this that has moved quickly.”
“Some of what you’re hearing is people who’ve staked their allegiance with proposals that didn’t make it through the finalists,” Lightfoot said. “It’s typical of folks that weren’t successful to attack the process.”
Bally’s plans to use a former Tribune Publishing warehouse once earmarked for a residential and office development as its temporary casino while Freedom Center is demolished and the permanent facility is built.
But before that can happen, city leaders will likely face stiff opposition from some neighbors in an area that in recent decades has seen other industrial spaces and parking lots supplanted by residential developments.
Ald. Walter Burnett, whose ward will host the project, took on the criticism head on at Thursday’s new conference, saying it would be irresponsible not to support the casino because otherwise would lead to higher property taxes.
Yet members of the River North Residents Association have been heavily engaged in the casino selection process, attending meetings, talking to the press, issuing public statements and conducting a public survey all with the same message — the Bally’s casino, hotel and entertainment complex is not the right fit for River West.
“The game is not over yet,” said Brian Israel, president of the residents association, adding that this is just one step in a longer process, adding the group will lobby the council to reject the plan.
“Chicago is a great American city,” Israel said. “And we think it can do better than this.”
He said the association is disappointed at the lack of transparency and the short timeframe of the selection process and said the mayor’s office should be working with city council members more as they make decisions about the casino proposal.
“We think that the development that’s been proposed is the wrong project for this site. Our organization is definitely not anti-development,” Israel said. “We have been working for 25 years with many many developers and the city to review and recommend changes to dozens of developments throughout the area and we always want development to be done in a way that enhances the community and considers its impact on all of the stakeholders. But unfortunately that really can’t be said about this project.”
Alan Miretzky, a River North resident for about 12 years who lives very close to where the casino would be built, said he doesn’t understand why the Bally’s location is the frontrunner, when other finalists’ proposals would seem to have a lesser impact on residential areas.
”Frankly, I’m appalled by it,” Miretzky said. “We didn’t sign up for that when we moved in here.”
Traffic in the area, just one of Miretzky’s concerns, is “already horrendous … so this is going to make it even worse,” he said.