Mayor Lori Lightfoot put all her chips on the table Thursday morning and placed a high-stakes bet on Bally’s to build a casino in River West.
Lightfoot’s support for a casino on what is now the Chicago Tribune printing plant and newsroom near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street will bounce the roulette ball to the Chicago City Council to consider Bally’s plan to build and run the gaming palace and entertainment district officials contend is key to the city’s financial future.
Once the City Council acts, the plan will also need the approval of the Illinois Gaming Board.
“We got this done,” Lighfoot said before announcing her pick to a packed — and thrilled — room at the headquarters of the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council.
Lightfoot is expected to run for re-election, and will no doubt emphasize that she succeeded in bringing a casino to Chicago in three years after former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel failed for 30 years. Lightfoot was able to convince state lawmakers to revise the tax structure for a Chicago casino in May 2020.
Bally’s was one of three firms to submit a proposal to build a casino in Chicago in November, and appeared to have the inside track in the winner-take-all contest after a study from the city’s gaming consultant found the Bally’s casino would be the most lucrative for the city and its sister agencies, ringing up $191.7 million in its sixth year of operations.
Bally’s is the only one of the three finalists that does not operate another nearby casino, giving the firm an incentive to maximize efforts to drive gamblers and revelers to their Chicago casino and resort — boosting the city’s share of its revenue, according to that study.
“Chicago money must be spent in Chicago,” Lightfoot said.
Bally’s will also offer the city an upfront payment of $40 million for the license, and $4 million annually, the mayor’s office announced. Initially, Bally’s offered the city an upfront payment of $25 million.
“It was very important to me that we had a financial deal that worked for the city,” Lightfoot said, adding that the annual payment would “supplement” development around the casino.
Bally’s also inked an agreement with the Chicago Federation of Labor to ensure construction and casino workers are allowed to unionize. In addition, the casino firm promised that 60% of the 3,000 construction workers it plans to hire each year and the 60% of the 3,000 permanent jobs the casino will create will be filled by Black, Latino or Asian workers.
Bally’s will also create a jobs program specifically targeting Chicago neighborhoods with the highest levels of unemployment and lowest income, according to the mayor’s office.
Bally’s plans to open a temporary casino in the Medinah Temple at Ohio Street and Wabash Avenue by the summer of 2023, according to the mayor’s office. The original proposal from Bally’s called for a warehouse on the Tribune site to be transformed into a temporary casino.
The Medinah Temple was selected to house a temporary casino because it is close to CTA bus and train lines as well as shops and restaurants along north Michigan Avenue, which will “assist in the city’s post-Covid revitalization,” according to the mayor’s office.
A permanent casino could open as soon as early 2026.
By picking the Bally’s proposal, Lightfoot will sidestep a major skirmish in the battle over aldermanic prerogative that has marked her nearly three years in office.
Although Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) had said he is not enthusiastic about the plan to build a casino in his West Side ward, he was the only member of the Chicago City Council to tell reporters he was open to the proposal because it will avert the need for massive property tax hikes.
Burnett joined Lightfoot at Thursday’s announcement, and said he would back the plan because it will make it less likely he will have to vote to increase property taxes, while bringing economic development to the part of his ward that was once home to the Cabrini Green housing project.
“I’m not afraid of progress,” Burnett said.
However, Lightfoot’s casino pick is unlikely to sail through the City Council, with both neighboring Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) dead set against Bally's proposal, which they say will snarl traffic, reduce property values, fuel crime and diminish the quality of life in nearby River North, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The special City Council committee on the casino is set to meet for the second time at 11 a.m. Monday. No vote will be taken.
Lightfoot said she was “more than confident” she will have a “good solid majority” of the City Council vote in support of the Bally’s casino.
“There are going to be some that vote no,” Lightfoot said. “And that’s how the world turns.”
Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) took no position on Hard Rock’s proposal to build the casino over train tracks west of Soldier Field, while Ald. Pat Dowell, who represents the neighboring 3rd Ward, opposed the proposal in total because of its inclusion in the yet-to-be approved One Central development.
Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) was a full-throated critic of the proposal from Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming to build the Rivers 78 Casino on vacant land between the South Loop and Chinatown along the Chicago River set to be redeveloped by Related Midwest into a new development known as The 78.
That proposal also drew the opposition of state Rep. Theresa Mah, the first Asian American to be elected to the Illinois General Assembly, who told WTTW News a casino does not belong so close to Chinatown.
When state lawmakers finally granted Chicago permission to build a casino, Bluhm was the apparent front runner because of his close ties to Chicago’s political and economic leaders.
Lightfoot attended law school at the University of Chicago with Bluhm’s daughter, Leslie Bluhm, where they became close friends. The Bluhm family has also been a major contributor to Lightfoot’s political campaigns.
Both losing firms issued statements Thursday congratulating Bally's and wishing the city well.
It would be nearly unprecedented for the Chicago City Council to approve such a large and contentious development over the objections of the local alderperson even with the support of the mayor. While Lightfoot has repeatedly vowed to uproot the largely unwritten, decades-old practice of aldermanic prerogative, she has not come close to achieving that goal amid consistent — and implacable — opposition among even her allies on the City Council.
Lightfoot is counting on a casino to boost the city’s economy and funnel approximately $200 million into its police and fire pension funds, significantly easing the pressure on the city’s finances, while creating thousands of jobs and drawing tourists — and their fat wallets.
Bally’s $1.73 billion casino would have 3,400 slots and 173 table games. The resort would have six restaurants and cafes in addition to a food hall and three bars and lounges. It would also feature a 3,000-seat, 70,000-square-foot concert venue and a 20,000 square-foot event venue in addition to outdoor bars, lounges and pools along the Chicago River.
Soo Kim, the chairman of Rhode Island-based Bally’s, said the firm understood the importance of the casino to Chicago and its residents.
“Bally’s is ready to bet on Chicago,” Kim said.
Bally’s pitch for its casino proposal touted the benefits of being close to the city’s “urban core,” which Kim said would draw people into the city rather than pushing them toward the edges, accelerating the benefits of the casino for other businesses and attractions while creating stable jobs that will lift families into the middle class.
Kim told residents concerned about traffic and gridlock a casino would mean less gridlock than the 6,000 apartments and condominiums and 4.7 million square feet of office space approved for the site by city officials in 2018.
Bally’s proposal will also face questions from environmental advocates concerned that building large glass, brightly-lit tower along the Chicago River could prove deadly for migrating birds and harm the river itself, which has been the focus of years of restoration and conservation efforts.
Bally’s has put together a consortium — the Chicago Community Builder’s Collective — of design and construction firms owned by Black, Latino and female Chicagoans to work on the project.
Bally’s has told city officials they will meet the requirements imposed by city officials that 25% of the facility be owned by Black, Latino or Asian shareholders, 50% of its employees be from Chicago and at least 26% of the construction contracts go to firms owned by women or Black, Latino or Asian Chicagoans.