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Casino for Chicago’s River West wins City Council approval, with promises of jobs and a boost for the city but also warnings of ‘red flags’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/26/2022 Gregory Pratt, Chicago Tribune
Bally's chairman Soo Kim speaks alongside Mayor Lori Lightfoot as they celebrate the passage of the casino deal through City Council on May 25, 2022, at City Hall. © Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS Bally's chairman Soo Kim speaks alongside Mayor Lori Lightfoot as they celebrate the passage of the casino deal through City Council on May 25, 2022, at City Hall.

A casino for Chicago — an enterprise supporters say is 30 years in the making and opponents view as a rush job — took a big step toward reality Wednesday with the City Council voting 41-7 to approve the plan.

Less than three weeks after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her choice, a majority of aldermen signed onto the plan for Bally’s to build a $1.7 billion casino, hotel and entertainment venue in River West.

The gambling complex must also now win approval of the Illinois Gaming Board. It also faces strong headwinds in the area among nearby residents, as do plans to open a temporary casino inside the historic Medinah Temple building that would operate while the permanent development is constructed.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot tells Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez that he is out of order after he refuses to stop speaking on issues concerning the proposed casino. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Mayor Lori Lightfoot tells Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez that he is out of order after he refuses to stop speaking on issues concerning the proposed casino.

The vote went through despite pleas from several aldermen, including Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes parts of downtown. He said aldermen should delay a vote until they receive more information. He criticized the location as the “least desirable” of three bidders.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez refuses to stop speaking after being told to do so by Mayor Lori Lightfoot during Wednesday's City Council meeting. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez refuses to stop speaking after being told to do so by Mayor Lori Lightfoot during Wednesday's City Council meeting.

“This is a mistake,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins accused Lightfoot’s office of giving Bally’s an “unfair advantage,” citing a waiver of certain application fees and an opportunity Bally’s was given to revise elements of its proposal.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, questioned a financial analysis performed by a company that has done work with Bally’s. He said the financial projections that Chicago would make $200 million per year seemed “rosy.”

Lightfoot’s decision to rush the vote should be a “red flag,” Reilly said.

The mayor also had a heated exchange with Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, one of her frequent critics, after he said the administration “is more worried about campaign contributions than doing the right thing for the city of Chicago.”

Lightfoot banged her gavel and shouted, “You are a liar! You are a liar, sir, and you are out of order!”

“I sit here and I will not tolerate you besmirching the hard work of so many people who have worked on this!” Lightfoot said. “You may not agree, you may not agree, then vote no. But I will not sit here silently while you besmirch my reputation and the people that work for me from your pettiness of the things you’re trying to do that expose this city to liability, sir!”

“Almost every word that comes out of your mouth after you say your name is a lie,” Lightfoot added.

But Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, Lightfoot’s hand-picked choice to shepherd the casino through City Council, vowed that there will be a “thorough engagement process” with the community before the city’s Plan Commission begins its examination of the proposal’s details.

“Those people who are primarily affected are going to have their voices heard,” he said.

Tunney touted Bally’s financial investment and said it’s the company’s only site in Chicago.


Video: What do Chicagoans think about a proposed casino in River West? (WGN-TV Chicago)

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“They are 100% committed to making Chicago the most profitable for us and them,” Tunney said.

Later, at a post-council news conference, Lightfoot celebrated “30 years of effort” by city leaders to bring a casino to Chicago. In addition to potentially boosting the city’s finances, Lightfoot said the casino reflects that Chicago’s economy is healing amid the pandemic.

“It goes without saying that this is a major, major milestone for our city,” Lightfoot said.

She also rebutted Hopkins’ and Sigcho-Lopez’s criticism that the process skewed in Bally’s favor, saying Bally’s did the most to work with labor interests.

“Labor peace is a nonnegotiable issue,” Lightfoot said.

Some aldermen struck a practical tone on the project. West Side Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, said the city needs the money to help fund worker pensions.

“Government does not run on hopes and prayers,” Ervin said.

South Side Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, said she voted for the project because of the jobs it will bring but said the city is moving too fast.

Bally’s, which owns and manages 14 casinos in 10 states, was unique among the three casino finalists in that it offered the most upfront money, $25 million, to the city in its proposal — and then later upped that to $40 million. Bally’s also offered an annual $2 million “impact fee” payment to the city and has newly proposed another $2 million yearly “indirect impact fee.”

Chicago is also banking on a casino to generate $200 million in annual tax revenue to help deal with massive and expanding holes in its public pension funds, which the Civic Federation last year called “severely underfunded.” Some aldermen have questioned that figure and said they hadn’t seen adequate financial analyses.

Chicago labor unions are also banking on the project to generate jobs. While nearby residents worry about increased crime and traffic, several working people — many of them immigrants in the hospitality industry — urged aldermen to approve the casino. They spoke of how the COVID-19 pandemic severely hurt industry workers, some of whom have not been able to replace the jobs they lost.

The city has estimated the casino will generate 3,000 annual construction jobs and 3,000 permanent casino jobs.

The complex, planned for land now occupied by the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street, is to include an exhibition hall, a 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants and, for gambling, 3,400 slots and 170 game tables.

Bally’s aims to open the temporary casino at Medinah Temple by next year and the permanent location in 2026.

In March, Lightfoot narrowed down five proposals to three finalists: Bally’s at the Chicago Tribune Publishing Center, Rivers at The 78 in the South Loop and Hard Rock at the proposed One Central development on the Near South Side.

The city passed on separate proposals by Bally’s and Rivers involving the McCormick Place campus after the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns the convention center complex, said it was not interested in transforming any of its facilities into a casino.

Despite opposition to the casino, Lightfoot’s success in convincing state lawmakers to authorize the Chicago license, and then negotiating a proposed deal, could be seen as a political win for Lightfoot as she embarks on an expected reelection bid. Her predecessors have tried for decades to secure a casino for the city.

But the casino license’s long gestation didn’t blunt criticism that City Hall has been too hasty in trying to get it through the council. The mayor unveiled her pick with a celebratory news conference on May 5, at which point the council’s special casino committee had met just once. That committee easily advanced the plan Monday by a 27-3 vote.

Lightfoot previously responded to the criticism by saying “there’s nothing about this that has moved quickly. ... Some of what you’re hearing is people who’ve staked their allegiance with proposals that didn’t make it through the finalists. It’s typical of folks that weren’t successful to attack the process.”

Reilly responded to Lightfoot’s criticism on Twitter.

“Get used to that talking point: ‘opponents had their favorite bidders (and) this is sour grapes,’” Reilly tweeted. “That’s definitely not the case with me: all three of the final locations were flawed, the process too amorphous (and) I do not care who operates the damned thing. But location matters a lot.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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