Mayor Lori Lightfoot picks Bally’s to be Chicago’s first casino

The casino could open a temporary site next year, but not everyone is thrilled about the potential new neighbor.

Bally’s casino rendering
A rendering of Bally’s proposed casino complex at 777 W. Chicago Ave., site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant. Provided
Bally’s casino rendering
A rendering of Bally’s proposed casino complex at 777 W. Chicago Ave., site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant. Provided

Mayor Lori Lightfoot picks Bally’s to be Chicago’s first casino

The casino could open a temporary site next year, but not everyone is thrilled about the potential new neighbor.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot is going all in on a proposal from Bally’s Corporation to bring Chicago’s forthcoming casino to life on the site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant in the River West neighborhood.

Lightfoot announced the city’s site selection — which is along the North Branch of the city’s namesake river near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street — at a news conference Thursday morning. Lightfoot said she chose Bally’s in part because it presented “the strongest financial offer” to the city and, unlike other applicants, does not have a competing casino in Chicagoland.

If approved by Chicago City Council and the state Gaming Board, Bally’s would build a $1.74 billion, 3,400-slot casino with a 500-room hotel, six restaurants, three bars and 3,000-seat theater. Bally’s predicts it could open a temporary site at the Medinah Temple in Chicago’s River North neighborhood by the second quarter of 2023 and a permanent one in early 2026.

A document outlining the final pick indicates $200 million in revenue — including a $40 million up-front payment — would start flowing into city coffers once a temporary site is open. “The earliest this could support the City’s budget would be FY2024,” the document said.

A Chicago casino is a long time coming. Former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel worked on proposals and legislation over the years that would have brought one to fruition. But those attempts never succeeded.

In fact, Lightfoot said that when she was a junior lawyer at Mayer Brown she worked with a commission created in 1992 by Daley to explore a $2 billion Chicago casino proposal.

“I don’t recall much about my work assignments, but I do vividly recall the personalities and the politics involved,” she said.

“Thirty years and two mayors later, I’m pleased to announce that in 2022, we got this done,” Lightfoot said.

The decision means the end of the road for two other finalists: Hard Rock and Rush Street Gaming, which proposed casinos near Soldier Field and the South Loop, respectively. The city already ruled out two bids that would’ve put a casino at McCormick Place.

Ald. Walter Burnett, who represents the ward that would encompass a Bally’s casino, said he supports the project.

“I’m not scared of progress,” Burnett said, drawing on his personal history growing up in Cabrini Green, which sits east of the proposed site. “My childhood home is still there. It’s just boarded up.”

Burnett, who has been an alderman since 1995, said he has a “fiscal responsibility to our citizens” to allow the casino to be built because it will generate revenue for city workers’ pensions.

“It would be irresponsible of us not to have taken advantage of this situation, because one who wants to pay more property taxes? I know I don’t,” he said.

“I can’t lie to my constituents and say I wouldn’t vote for it, because I would,” Burnett told WBEZ ahead of the announcement.

An evaluation from Union Gaming, which the city has relied on for financial analysis, showed that, of all three proposals, the Bally’s site would rake in the most tax revenue –– which the city will use to replenish its underfunded police and fire pension funds. Bally’s is also committing to pay the city $40 million up front — up from its original $25 million offer — and promises an “annual community benefit” payment of $2 million.

Crain’s Chicago Business has, however, reported a potential conflict of interest between Bally’s and Union Gaming, revealing that the company provides investment banking and other fundraising help for gambling companies and that Bally’s has been a client within the last year.

Residents near all three proposals have been vocal about traffic, safety and congestion concerns related to the casino, with many neighbors saying they simply do not want a casino in their backyard.

Bally’s initially proposed a temporary casino in a warehouse next to the site of the permanent one. But on Thursday, that changed. Instead, the possible temporary location for Bally’s was moved a mile east to the Medinah Temple, which housed a Bloomingdale’s until the retailer shuttered the store amid the COVID-19 pandemic. City officials had first suggested the Landmark building at 600 N. Wabash Ave. in March in a document narrowing the finalists from five to three.

That same day, Lightfoot’s campaign fund, Lightfoot for Chicago, reported a $6,000 donation from the owner of the Medinah Temple, Albert M. Friedman. Donations over $1,000 must be reported within five days of receiving them. 

A spokesperson for Lightfoot’s political fund said Friedman is a “longtime generous supporter of Democrats throughout Chicago and Illinois” and said the mayor has “gone above and beyond throughout her tenure to break from the shady backroom deals of the past, and she will continue to be transparent with Chicagoans.”

Friedman could not immediately be reached for comment. According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, he has given hundreds of thousands to Democrats in Chicago, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The casino proposal is not without aldermanic opposition. Neighboring Alds. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, and Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, have said a casino in the area would negatively affect residents in their wards. Lightfoot said she is “not concerned at all” about opposition and is confident she will have “a good solid majority” to get the project approved by City Council.

One key factor that gave the Bally’s proposal an edge was the fact they negotiated a “labor peace agreement,” Lightfoot said.

“It means the attendant that parks your car, the dealer at the poker table, the server that brings your drinks, the stagehand that sets up the show in the theater, the engineer who keeps the building running, all those workers will have the chance to earn family sustaining wages and benefits,” said Bob Reiter, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Karen Kent, President of UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents hospitality workers, broke down in tears during the press conference as she talked about what hospitality workers have been through during the past two years of the pandemic.

“We are fortunate to have a labor movement that believes in lifting all boats and that leaves no one behind,” Kent said.

Aldermen are expected to be briefed Thursday and Friday on the project. Then it will wind its way through the approval process.

In the name of “government efficiency,” Lightfoot created a special casino committee, which includes all of her hand-picked chairs and vice chairs of existing Council committees, to consider the proposal. The new Special Committee on the Chicago Casino will be the one to vote on all matters related to the massive casino entertainment district.

That differs from the process for past large developments, such as Lincoln Yards and the Obama Presidential Center. Those projects were voted on in pieces through different committees, including Zoning and Finance.

That committee is scheduled to meet again on Monday. According to its agenda, members will not be voting on any aspect of the casino proposal at that time. Once it is approved by the committee, the full City Council will have to vote. The state Gaming board will also need to approve the project.

Mariah Woelfel and Becky Vevea cover Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow them at @MariahWoelfel and @BeckyVevea.