Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Casino Pick Gets Cool Reception from Chicago City Council Members

Members of the Chicago City Council gave Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to place a high-stakes bet on Bally’s to build a casino in River West a cool reception on Monday, even as the mayor’s team urged them to quickly approve the proposal and avert massive property tax hikes.

While members of the Lightfoot administration touted the proposal from Bally’s as the most lucrative proposal the city recieved and said the casino would be an “iconic” addition to Chicago’s riverfront, nearly all members of a special City Council committee formed to consider the plan greeted those claims with skepticism.

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The tough questions lobbed by alderpeople at Bally’s officials and representatives of the mayor could complicate the push by Lightfoot to get the City Council to sign off on the casino at its next meeting, which is scheduled for May 23.

Once the City Council acts, the plan will also need the approval of the Illinois Gaming Board.

Soo Kim, chairman of the board of Bally’s Corporation, fielded questions from alderpeople for nearly five hours before logging off of the virtual meeting that continued for nearly another two hours.

“We understand how deep a responsibility it is for us” to be selected to build a Chicago casino, Kim said. “There are a lot of promises for us to keep and we intend to keep them.”

The Chicago casino, which could open as soon as 2026, would be the firm’s “flagship,” Kim said. The $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.

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 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.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward) said the proposal did not include enough park and open space along the river, and said she would not be rushed to make a decision on a Chicago casino.

“Our job as fiduciaries require us to resist the rush to judgment because we feel frightened,” Smith said. 

Samir Mayekar, the deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said the city’s casino would help the city recover from the economic catastrophe caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was especially brutal for the city’s tourism, travel and hospitality industries.

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. That will cover approximately 9% of the city’s annual pension bill, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett.

Huang Bennett said the city desperately needed the tax revenue from the casino and the economic development that it is expected to fuel in order to close a deficit in the 2023 budget estimated to be $867 million. A gap of that size would likely require city officials to hike property taxes to bridge.

Twenty days ago, Lightfoot told a crowd at the City Club of Chicago that the city could end 2022 with a surplus after two years of massive deficits, with revenues outpacing estimates by nearly $200 million.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) led the opposition to the proposal on what is now the Chicago Tribune printing plant and newsroom near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street, urging his colleagues to be wary of false testimony and “artfully massaged data.”

Reilly said he was attempting to prevent the City Council from approving a deal like the one in 2008 that leased the city's parking meters — in addition to all of the revenue from the meters — to a private company.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward), Lightfoot’s hand-picked chair to lead the special casino committee, anticipated that criticism and detailed the months of meetings that led up to the mayor’s selection before the meetin began in earnest.

Mayekar also defended the agreement to locate a temporary casino with 800 slots and table games in the Medinah Temple at Ohio Street and Wabash Avenue, saying the city must “activate” the historic building that has been vacant for many years. It could open as soon as 2023.

At an unrelated news conference, Lightfoot said the choice to put the casino at the Medinah Temple was made by Bally’s officials. However, Bally’s initially proposed operating a temporary casino in an empty warehouse on the Tribune property and Kim has told several news organizations that they agreed to change that plan in response to a request from Chicago officials.

“It’s Bally’s choice,” Lightfoot said. “They have to go where they believe that they are going to be able to maximize revenues. We’ve evaluated it and will support it.”

Kim declined to be interviewed Monday by WTTW News.

Mayekar implicitly warned Reilly that the downtown alderperson would not be able to block the temporary casino by refusing to endorse a proposal to lift a moratorium that prevents the city from issuing additional liquor licenses in that area.

Large facilities — like sports stadiums and concert venues — are not covered by the city’s liquor moratorium, Mayekar said. Casinos are allowed by state officials to serve alcohol at all times except from 4 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. every day.

Reilly called that “baloney,” since that provision was designed to protect longstanding stadiums, like Wrigley Field in Lakeview.

In response to Reilly’s questions, Chicago Department of Transportation officials acknowledged they had not studied the traffic that a temporary casino would create around Medinah Temple, where there is no parking on site and no plans to accommodate charter buses. 

“I’m not satisfied with a lot of the answers I got to our questions today,” Reilly said. “I’m very frustrated by this process.”

Bally’s officials said they would spend more than $75 million on 30 projects designed to ease gridlock in River West and River North. Officials also told alderpeople that the casino would cause less traffic than the project approved by the city in 2018, which included mostly office space.

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.

A public meeting on the casino is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the University of Illinois at Chicago Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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