Lightfoot set to announce casino pick as critics pile on selection process
A rendering shows what a Bally's casino planned for Tribune Publishing could look like. [City of Chicago]
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is set to announce the city's final choice of a location and operator for a Chicago casino on Thursday. She is widely expected to choose the Bally’s River West proposal over the loud objections of neighbors and some aldermen.
Multiple sources close to the selection process have acknowledged the Bally’s plan is the clear frontrunner. Lightfoot will announce the choice at the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council headquarters in River North at 9:45 a.m. Thursday.
The news comes after the city’s first special casino committee meeting in late April, when each finalist faced widespread resistance from neighbors and alderpeople.
Bally’s proposal for the Tribune Publishing site in the 27th ward claims to have the highest annual payout for the city, citing nearly $200 million. Although it faces no clear opposition from Ald. Walter Burnett (27), neighboring alderpeople and resident associations have repeatedly said they don’t want it.
Burnett said he wasn’t aware of any final decision from the mayor, but he did say he hopes that a decision is made “sooner rather than later.”
“I think the longer it lingers, the more challenging it gets for everyone,” Burnett said.
A spokesperson for Bally’s said Wednesday the Rhode Island-based company “has no comment or updates at this time.” And a spokesperson for the Rivers casino at The 78 megadevelopment said they would withhold comment while the mayor’s decision is pending.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2) said Wednesday that he didn’t want to overreact to Tuesday’s reports because “none of his colleagues” could confirm them, but he does believe that “people are confused.”
“My understanding was we would have the opportunity to evaluate the options and … actually vote on it,” Hopkins said. “If [Lightfoot is] going to usurp that entire process … before we’ve completed our work and just making a decision, I wish she would have told us that at the outset.”
Hopkins has been vocal about his opposition to the Bally’s proposal. He said he believes the Rivers 78 proposal is the best overall option for the city, claiming its amenities far outshine the other two options.
Leaders of the River North Residents Association have echoed that, saying, although nothing had been confirmed, it would be “very discouraging and disappointing” if Bally’s were to be announced as the city’s ultimate choice.
The organization has an ongoing residents’ survey, which has more than 2,300 responses. More than 80 percent of respondents oppose the Bally’s proposal.
“We were expecting this to get towards the decision-making process in early summer … with many more meetings of the special committee and more opportunities for public input,” said Brian Israel, president of the River North Residents Association.
Members of the City Council’s Special Committee on the Chicago Casino received a 102-page packet of public comments and City Council correspondence on the three proposals last month. It included a 74-page submission from the River North Residents Association comprising multiple letters and hundreds of individual comments from neighbors saying they oppose the Bally’s plan.
At last month’s special committee meeting, city officials promised they will hold additional community meetings before they make a final decision. The mayor’s office did not specifically say Tuesday if the city was still committed to hosting those.
Casino committee chair Ald. Tom Tunney (44) has scheduled the committee's next public meeting for 11 a.m. on Monday. The agenda describes the hearing as a "subject matter hearing" to "discuss the finalists selected to develop a casino in Chicago."
“The evaluation process continues, and we expect to make an announcement soon,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said in a statement.
Hopkins said he believed there have been “ample opportunities for public input” but expressed that at times public input “could be a charade for a decision that’s already been made.”
“I’m not saying that’s the case here, but of course it’s a legitimate concern that it might be,” he said.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) also opposes the Bally’s proposal, airing his grievances with Crain’s Chicago Business political reporter A.D. Quig on an April 25 episode of her podcast.
Reilly said on the podcast the Bally’s site makes “no sense” logistically and accused the site of getting preferential treatment for not having to pay a second $300,000 filing fee for another casino proposal it submitted with the city. City officials deny that claim, saying another applicant who paid multiple filing fees did so because its entities were completely different, unlike Bally’s which were the same.
“I’m concerned that there’s a select number of people in the Mayor’s Office dictating the course of this entire discussion, and it sure feels like Bally’s has been given a leg up and that’s not fair,” Reilly said on the podcast.
While support from the local alderman is not a pre-requisite for the city to settle on one of the three remaining casino proposals, the unwritten rule of “aldermanic privilege” will likely weigh heavily on the outcome — especially now that a critical piece of the approval process is in the hands of the City Council. The committee is charged with approving a “host community agreement” with the winning casino site before it heads to the full council for approval. Its next step would be a hearing with the Illinois Gaming Board.
Despite strong opposition from Hopkins and Reilly, Burnett has remained noncommittal, making Bally’s the only site whose representative in the City Council has not firmly opposed their plan. Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) came out against Rivers Casino’s and Related Midwest’s pitch for The 78 at the end of March. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward includes part of the ONE Central mega-proposal next to Soldier Field, said in April she cannot support Hard Rock’s casino proposal amid opposition from neighbors.
Burnett told the Tribune on Tuesday that he would “rather not” have a casino in his ward, but that he will likely vote in favor of whatever plan Lightfoot brings to the council.
The final pick is ultimately up to the mayor — a fact that has rubbed multiple alderpeople the wrong way.
“I don’t understand why as a city, we didn’t find a location for the casino first” and then issue a Request for Proposals on whichever site would be “best for the city,” Ald. Michael Scott (24) said at a committee meeting in April. City officials could have worked with aldermen to figure out which site’s infrastructure and traffic flow could have best accommodated a casino, he said.
But city employees are not “casino experts,” Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett responded.
“Ultimately the casino operator knows best where it can maximize revenues and there are only a certain number of sites in the city that have enough landmass…to accommodate a potential casino development,” Huang Bennett said.
Officials in Lightfoot’s administration found in a March 22 “casino evaluation report” saying Bally’s Tribune would bring in more revenue for the city than any of its remaining competitors.
The 103-page report predicted the Bally’s plan would generate $141.2 million in annual gaming revenues — whose taxes would be used to shore up the city’s ailing police and fire pension funds. It also calculated the site would rake in nearly $23 million in incidental taxes from the hotel, restaurants and overall development that would accompany the casino, and it would generate nearly $19 million in new property tax revenue for Chicago Public Schools.
However, those calculations were called into question when Crain’s reported last week that Union Gaming, the consulting firm the city has leaned on through the casino study and selection process, has been hired by Bally’s for other work in the past year. Officials in Lightfoot’s administration have said they still trust the numbers calculated by Union Gaming, calling the firm an expert in the field with a wide range of clients in the industry.
All three remaining casino operators have pledged to open a temporary casino in spring 2023 with a final project opening in late 2025 or early 2026.
Erin Hegarty contributed reporting.
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