Who will have the most influence on how a Chicago casino comes to fruition turned into a fierce debate at the end of a lengthy City Council meeting today.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is creating a new Special Committee on the Chicago Casino that would include all of her hand-picked chairs and vice chairs of existing Council committees. But some aldermen argue the new group should include all 50 aldermen, since a casino is such an important development for the city.
The kerfuffle comes two years into the process of developing a city casino and after Lightfoot’s office earlier this week announced it had already whittled down the casino proposals from five to three. The three finalists are: Bally’s Corporation, which would build a casino complex at the Tribune Publishing Center in River West, Hard Rock, which would build one just west of Soldier Field and Rush Street Gaming, which wants to open on the north end of the South Loop megadevelopment known as the 78.
The new Special Committee on the Chicago Casino would be the one to vote on all matters related to the massive casino entertainment district that Lightfoot envisions.
“I think it makes most sense for us to have a short term, temporary committee to deal with the casino,” Lightfoot said after the meeting. “If we broke it up into little parts, it would go to four or five different committees. And rather than do that, let’s have a committee that’s larger, composed of chairs and vice chairs, and people can weigh in, in one fell swoop.”
But past large developments, like Lincoln Yards and the Obama Presidential Center, were voted on in pieces through different committees, like Zoning and Finance. Lightfoot said having a single committee makes more sense “for government efficiency.”
Some aldermen said however they didn’t want to be left out of the process for such a huge development that could have a major impact on the area it’s built in, and the city at large.
Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, proposed including every alderman on the special casino committee and 18 of his colleagues supported it, including Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, 35th Ward.
“This is not bringing in the light. This is not transparency. This is not good government,” Ramirez Rosa said, taking a jab at Lightfoot’s winning 2019 campaign slogan.
But 28 aldermen sided with the mayor in keeping the committee smaller, with some noting that all 50 aldermen will still have to vote on anything the committee decides.
“Anybody that knows what their job is, knows that you don’t have to be a member of the committee in order to participate in committee hearing,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward. “If we want to talk about trying to change and bringing in the light, then turn on the lights in your own office.”
The only committee that consists of all members of the City Council is the Committee on Rules.
Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, will chair the new special committee on the Chicago casino and promised his colleagues that he would share all information and items that will be voted on with all members of City Council, not just committee members.
“Some of us have been waiting for 30 years for a casino revenue source to help our pensions,” Tunney said. “We have to move forward in an expeditious manner.”
But after the vote, Beale said the new committee was a way for Lightfoot to have a “point of least resistance” to move a casino forward. He also criticized her for taking so long to make a decision on a casino in the first place.
“The casino would have been chosen, passed and in the ground under anybody else’s administration,” Beale said. “We should have had a temporary casino open over two years ago… We could have been generating some kind of revenue. And that would have been showing true leadership.”
The state legislation that opened the door for a casino in Chicago was passed in May 2020 and signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker shortly after. Lightfoot’s administration started formally soliciting ideas in August of that year.
The law does allow the operator to have a temporary gaming facility while it works to build a permanent one, but the remaining bids indicate the soonest even a temporary casino would open would be in the middle of 2023. A permanent facility would not open until at least 2025.
“We won’t see a casino in this term,” Beale noted. “You may have a groundbreaking, but you won’t cut a ribbon.”
The fireworks over who gets to influence the development of a Chicago casino came at the end of a lengthy meeting that also made history, as aldermen voted electronically for the very first time. The new system had a few hiccups, with some of the iPads failing to connect and some aldermen calling for assistance to ensure their votes were registered.
Using the newfangled voting system, City Council also approved a $1.7 million settlement for Mia Wright and five others who were dragged out of a car by police outside Brickyard Mall during a weekend of protests and looting in May 2020.
Additionally, aldermen passed an ordinance banning future city treasurers from investing in fossil fuel companies. According to current City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, her office recently divested more than $70 million from the top 225 fossil fuel companies.
Conyears-Ervin oversees a nearly $9 billion investment portfolio. But the treasurer’s office does not manage the investments of the city’s pension funds, though the treasurer does sit on the boards of those funds. The divestment measure does not extend to the city’s pension funds.
Becky Vevea covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.