Chicago Casino Developers Show Their Cards

Casino developers are finally showing their cards.

At an hourslong hearing Thursday, the public got a look at what a Chicago casino might look like and where it would go.

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It’s a high-stakes gamble. The city needs the casino to be as successful as possible because that means more money in the post to pay down long-term police and firefighter pension debt.

Chicago’s weighing five options:

• Bally’s proposes a casino at the Chicago Tribune Publishing Center

• Bally’s alternate site is for a truck marshaling area south of McCormick Place

• Rivers Casino is also looking at McCormick Place, specifically, rehabbing the Lakeside Center building

• Rivers also has a second bid: To be part of the under-development neighborhood The 78, a vacant area near the South Loop

• Hard Rock casino is all in for one location: The proposed One Central development, across from DuSable Lake Shore Drive from Soldier Field

Each tried to single out their project as unique, while also playing to Chicago’s desires for max profitability, giving back to the community, having a diverse team with people of color, women and veterans, and capitalizing on what Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the city’s existing “thriving entertainment and cultural scene.”

Hard Rock’s team says there’s a reason they only put forth one proposal: Because it’s the chance for connectivity. One Central aims to be a transit hub, with rail and L connections that make it easy for visitors from the city and nearby regions to easily get to the casino complex and Chicago’s other attractions.

Developer Bob Dunn says think of it like how Disney World makes it easy for people to visit.

“How do you take a must-see, world class destination that drives visitation and use that as a driver to create economic gain that can have an impact and a reach throughout the community,” Dunn said. “While there are five excellent [options] on the table today there is only one that can truly meet the underlying theme of that overarching objective.”

Each proposal played up its bona fides on the diversity and equity front, but Hard Rock partner Jim Reynolds said limited partners have limited stakes and input. Hard Rock’s is the only option where minority-owned firms, such as his Loop Capital, are part of the general partnership. In a post George Floyd world, he said that should be a prerequisite.

Engineer Kimberly Moore, who grew up on the South Side and founded the firm KDM Engineering, is part of the bid by Rush Street Gaming to build a Rivers casino McCormick Place Lakeside Center.

“When I think about the future of Chicago, and the families on the South Side, I want them to see that these investments are being made in their backyard. I want them to see what it’s like to reimagine an existing building, its being transformed into something spectacular and it’s being done by people in their communities,” Moore said. “I’m excited about what this will mean for Bronzeville, for the South Side of Chicago and for all of Chicago.”

Backers promise because they’re rehabbing an existing, though decaying, building, this project could be up and running within only one year of getting government approval – a quick turn that would mean more money for the city, and sooner.

Rivers is owned by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm, who critics say is betting against himself given that Bluhm also owns Illinois’ best-performing casino, the Rivers casino in suburban Des Plaines.

Bluhm says it’s no time for the city to take chances; his track record proves he can build a successful casino from the ground up and make it profitable.

He’s also part of the project at The 78 from Related Midwest, which backers said is likewise ready from jump as construction of the mixed-use development is already underway.

Meanwhile, Bally’s tried to win over the public, giving out freebies and hot drinks to passersby. Bally’s sold the public on its experience and is offering cash upfront to the city. Bally’s also has the backing from some prominent Black community leaders.

Some residents are skeptical about what bringing in any version of a casino could do to their neighborhoods. Traffic and gambling addiction are concerns.

But casinos also mean job opportunities, and developers promise they’ll hire local, and give money to community anti-violence organizations.

Lightfoot said she is looking for a “world class” hotel and entertainment venue that will “ensure the city’s economic prosperity well into the future” and prove that Chicago is on the path to a strong economic recovery.

The mayor expects the city will show its hand, and make its selection, by the end of March.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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