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Gamblers play slot machines

Gamblers play slot machines at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J.

Wayne Parry

Chicago Seeks A Developer To Open The City's First Casino By 2025

Chicago is laying its cards on the table and officially seeking bids to build the first casino in the nation’s third-largest city.

City leaders want a “world-class” resort that’ll draw locals and tourists while boosting Chicago’s finances, but several steps remain.

Here’s where things stand:

Slots in the Second City

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday that Chicago is officially seeking proposals to operate a casino resort that includes a hotel of up to 500 rooms, entertainment venues, restaurants and bars. Whoever gets the license will also get to run slot machines at both of Chicago’s airports. Overall, the operator will be allowed up to 4,000 “gaming positions”, or seats where bets are placed.

Under Chicago’s timeline, applicants will publicly present their plans in September, and the winner will be chosen in 2022. Final approval from the city and state gambling regulators is required.

To generate early revenue for the cash-strapped city, the operator will also be allowed to open a “temporary casino” for up to two years at a site of their choice.

“The bottom line is to make sure we are getting revenue as quickly as possible,” Lightfoot said at a briefing ahead of Thursday’s announcement.

Growing interest

Chicago leaders believe there’s a “tremendous appetite” for gaming as gamblers slowly return to casinos after coronavirus pandemic-related closures.

Estimates on casino revenues vary and Chicago’s plan hit early snags with its tax structure. A 2019 feasibility study by a Las Vegas consulting firm showed it was too onerous to generate much revenue, so legislators approved a change. Union Gaming Analytics then said a downtown casino could bring in about $1 billion annually.

The casino is expected to create thousands of jobs, including in construction, and boost existing businesses. Chicago’s budget for 2021 was $12.8 billion.

“It’s not just about the gaming revenues anymore,” said Jennie Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer. “It’s also a combination of food and beverage as well as other amenities.”

Eric Klank, 27, recently started going back to casinos after a hiatus due to the pandemic. He occasionally goes to casinos in in Indiana and suburban Chicago to play blackjack and have a fun night out with his brother.

The Chicagoan welcomed the idea of a casino nearby, which would save hassle and transportation costs.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to go to whatever casino is close enough or accessible to me,” he said.

Location, location, location

No site has been chosen. That’ll be up to the developer.

The topic has already drawn fierce location speculation about downtown versus neighborhoods. A 2019 study also reviewed five sites outside downtown, including a former U.S. Steel plant site, but recommended one closer to Chicago’s business district.

Eleven companies and neighborhood groups have already weighed in on the project, responding to a December survey from the city. Those who responded included major Las Vegas casino operators MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts, along with Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming and nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

Most favored a downtown location.

Lightfoot wouldn’t indicate her preference, saying it’s up to the operator. The request for proposals issued Thursday says Chicago wants a destination that’ll “enhance the urban fabric of its surrounding neighborhood.”

Raising the stakes

While Chicago is making plans, so are its neighbors.

The city’s south suburbs will also get a casino under a gambling expansion plan Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in 2019. That’ll add six new casinos on top of Illinois’ existing 10, including Rivers Casino in suburban Des Plaines.

Indiana and Wisconsin are also betting on gaming.

The new $300 million Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana is slated to open next month in Gary, which is replacing the Majestic Star casino along Lake Michigan.

Indiana state Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat who represents the area, calls the new facility a “game-changer” for the city 30 miles from Chicago.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers approved plans last month for a Ho-Chunk Nation casino in Beloit, near Illinois’ border and about a 90-minute drive from Chicago. The complex would include a 300-room hotel and 40,000-square-foot indoor waterpark.

Lightfoot said she isn’t worried about the competition or oversaturation.

“There’s no place else in the Midwest that offers what we do,” she said.

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