While the city is doing its best to keep a poker face, Bally’s CEO Soo Kim landed at Midway Airport Wednesday afternoon for a meeting with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to ostensibly finalize her choice as Chicago’s casino.
The meeting, scheduled for Thursday morning, is expected to lead to a formal announcement by the city, ending a long vetting process and starting a new phase as Lightfoot seeks to win over neighbors and aldermen for Bally’s proposed plan to replace the Chicago Tribune printing plant in River West with a casino complex.
“I feel optimistic,” Kim said. “There’s still a few issues that we have to sort out. But everyone thought that it was worth doing in person. We’re moving towards it.”
Rhode Island-based Bally’s, which owns and manages 14 casinos across 10 states, is hoping to make its proposed $1.74 billion casino, hotel and entertainment complex at the Freedom Center printing plant the flagship of its chain. The proposal has apparently bested rival bids to build a Rivers casino in the South Loop or a Hard Rock casino on the Near South Side.
A spokesman for rival bidder Rivers 78 declined to comment Wednesday, while Hard Rock did not respond to a request for comment.
The city, which is banking on a casino to generate $200 million in annual tax revenue to plug its public pension funding holes, plans to submit its choice to the Illinois Gaming Board for approval in time to include $25 million in upfront payments from Bally’s in the 2023 fiscal budget this fall.
Getting the full City Council to sign off on the Bally’s proposal may be challenging, given the vocal opposition by neighboring residents.
The River North Residents Association, which represents nearly 23,000 people living near the proposed Bally’s site, has expressed concerns about crime, traffic, safety, noise and the use of the Chicago River, with more than 86% of 2,311 survey respondents opposed to the casino.
Hearing that the Bally’s selection may be imminent, the group vowed Wednesday to fight on in City Council in an effort to sink the proposal.
“It’s very disappointing and discouraging for us,” said Brian Israel, president of the River North Residents Association. “But we’re going to continue our process. And we’re going to turn our attention to trying to persuade as many members of City Council as possible to say no to this recommendation.”
Bally’s casino proposal involves an option to buy the 30-acre Freedom Center printing plant site in River West, which was acquired in 2019 by Dallas-based Nexstar Media Group as part of its $4.1 billion purchase of Tribune Media — the former broadcast parent of Tribune Publishing.
The plan requires demolishing the 41-year-old plant and relocating the Tribune printing operations to make way for building the permanent casino. Bally’s has a lease option on a former Tribune Publishing warehouse at 700 W. Chicago Ave., where it plans to open a temporary casino within a year, pending state approval.
In October 2018, Tribune Media got approval for a planned multi-use development at the site including offices, a hotel and thousands of residential units. Bally’s contends that its proposed casino will bring less disruption and congestion to the neighborhood than the previously approved planned development, but many neighbors are not assuaged.
Residents and businesses voiced a range of opinions Wednesday from concern to resignation to excitement. Some community members polled throughout the day talked about the possibility for job creation and diversions in the neighborhood, while others cited moral opposition to casinos, or just fear of traffic jams, crime and noise.
“It’s just going to change the whole complexion of the neighborhood,” said Ronnie Lenzi, whose father bought the riverfront steakhouse Erie Cafe in 1992, when much of the surrounding area was parking lots.
Over the years, Lenzi’s family observed the development of condo buildings and other residences, and the industrial River West area began to feel like a real community. Lenzi wants to keep an open mind and a neutral stance, but he said he is concerned about the casino bringing turbulence to the area.
“Since the very beginning when we got here, we knew the area would change,” Lenzi said, speaking at his family’s wood-paneled restaurant Wednesday. “We just didn’t know it would happen as quick as it did.”
Ashley Arbgast, a River West dweller, said she thinks the casino will be good for business in the neighborhood, though she said she is concerned about an increase in traffic in the area already subject to traffic jams near the Milwaukee corridor. “At this point, I might as well embrace it,” she said.
Arbgast, while playing with her two dogs, Bella and Louis, in a dog park overlooking the river, said she thinks neighborhood residents are curious about the plans, but ultimately doesn’t see it as a draw for community members.
“I don’t know that it would be a local attraction,” she said.
Norah O’Malley, who works nearby and sometimes takes breaks on the river near the proposed casino site, said she’s excited for the development. “I personally love casinos,” she said. “I love going to them.”
Eddie Adler, a resident of a high-rise on the river near the proposed site, said he has mixed feelings. He sees the logic behind the choice of the site: It’s a large property near the expressways. But he’d rather see it somewhere else, he said.
“I’m obviously concerned about the congestion, traffic, crime,” he said. “But the city pensions need to be funded. I’m not sure this is the right answer, but it’s a possible answer.”