After decades of political wrangling by past Chicago mayors, years of City Hall jockeying by potential developers for the lucrative deal and months of preparation by the lucky bidder, Bally’s temporary Chicago casino took the city’s first legal wagers from the betting public Saturday morning.
Not that the lengthy political backstory was any concern for the dozens of people who lined up outside the landmark Medinah Temple in River North ahead of its 8 a.m. opening.
Those among the city’s first crew of casino gamblers were focused on one thing: to “win a grand,” said Chatham resident Erick Andrews, whose 53rd birthday landed on Bally’s opening date.
“I’m feeling lucky,” he said.
First in line was Steven Henry, who showed up at 6:30 a.m. for first dibs on a “Dancing Drums” slot machine. It took him only 20 minutes to get to the new downtown casino from Austin: “That’s what excites me — it’s close.”
One group of friends of a certain age — who called themselves the “Thirty Dirty” club from Bronzeville — exclaimed in line: “We’re seniors… We’re in there to get this money.”
“If you see me walking out like this, it means I lost,” one woman said, melodramatically slouched over.
Beyond that, there was little fanfare when security workers started waving patrons inside the glass doors at 600 N. Wabash Ave., which will serve as Bally’s temporary casino for three years while it builds a larger, permanent facility at the site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant in River West.
There was, however, an early indication of the possible congestion issues posed by the house of chance in the heart of a busy tourist district. Carolyn Williams, the fourth person in line, said she had trouble finding a parking garage open that early, and was miffed to learn it wasn’t free.
Nevertheless, she said she was still “excited to win.”
City officials are hoping to win a steady stream of cash from the casino to Chicago’s nearly insolvent police and firefighter pension funds.
That’s been the goal since former Mayor Richard M. Daley first embraced the casino concept in 1992. But neither he nor his successor Rahm Emanuel could reach a deal with lawmakers for a Chicago casino license.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot finally sealed the deal in 2019 and picked Bally’s proposal over three other bidders last year. Now, the city is banking on up to $50 million a year in tax revenue from Medinah Temple, the 111-year-old former headquarters of the Shriners fraternal organization that now houses almost 800 slot machines and 56 table games.
“I think anything that can help pay back some of the city’s debt is a good thing,” said Geoff Henao, a 36-year-old tech worker who came out for an early spin at Bally’s.
A steady stream of bettors — well short of the building’s capacity of 3,200 — kept the casino buzzing over its first few hours of operation. Game screens flashed and the occasional jingle of a jackpot rang out as gamblers tried their luck at slots and tables spread out across three gaming floors.
Some gamblers said they didn’t see signs of the traffic nightmare that opponents — including local Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) — warned a gambling hall would bring to the bustling neighborhood.
“I don’t understand why anyone would be unhappy about it opening,” Giles said, pointing to the success of the new Hard Rock Casino in Gary, Indiana. “In the end, Chicago is going to win.”
Martin Arzate, 33, a resident aid who assists migrants in Chicago, waved off public safety concerns as he explored the new casino.
“There’s bars everywhere. There’s clubs everywhere. It’s the same thing,” he said, opining that Bally’s leaders seemed to “know what they’re doing.”
“Everything looks great. It smells good, it feels good, everyone working is nice,” Arzate said. “And it doesn’t smell like cigarettes, so that’s always good.”
Andrews, the birthday boy who was among the first inside the casino, said he showed up with $10, and “if I lose that, I’m leaving.”
Less than an hour later, he made his way to another slot machine, grinning and waving a ticket. “I’m at $150.”
The casino is open 8 a.m. until 4 a.m. seven days a week and will eventually be a 24/7 operation, Bally’s said.
For help with problem gambling, call 1-800-GAMBLER or text ILGAMB to 833234 to be connected with licensed addiction counselors.