Chicago aldermen grilled city officials about plans to place a casino in River West, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pressing ahead with an ambitious plan to get the project approved as soon as next week.
A vote on Lightfoot’s plan for Bally’s to build a $1.74 billion casino, hotel and entertainment development in River West — on land now occupied by the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant — was postponed on Friday, but casino committee Chair Tom Tunney, 44th, said the City Council is expected to vote next week.
Much of the debate at a committee hearing focused on criticism leveled by downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who said the city was rushing through a decision that could increase crime and traffic.
Reilly also questioned whether the casino will be the financial boon Lightfoot officials have said it would be, noting that aldermen have not seen a variety of financial analyses.
Earlier this month, Lightfoot chose to advance the Bally’s proposal over two others.
Bally’s succeeded for a variety of reasons, the city said, including that they don’t have a competing casino in the Chicagoland region and reached a labor peace agreement with the Chicago Federation of Labor. Bally’s also included an upfront payment of $25 million to the city in its proposal — the only one of the three bidders to do that — and then later upped that to $40 million.
Bally’s had also offered an annual $2 million “impact fee” payment to the city and has newly proposed adding on another $2 million yearly “indirect impact fee.”
Chicago is 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.”
But Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, asked Friday if Bally’s could guarantee that the city will actually see that kind of revenue. Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said no, it can’t be guaranteed.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, who also represents parts of downtown, asked the city about Bally’s having a junk credit rating. Bennett said Bally’s has $1.7 billion cash on hand and the city vetted the company thoroughly.
Many residents in the River West and River North areas are lining up in opposition. In addition to worries that the casino would bring more crime and traffic to the area and hurt property values, some detractors are angered about an approval process they say is moving too quickly. The special casino committee only met once before Lightfoot announced which of the three finalists’ proposals she would advance.
In one concession to neighborhood concerns, Bally’s Chair Soo Kim told residents who attended a recent town hall meeting that he would drop plans to connect the entertainment complex to a nearby residential area with a pedestrian bridge.
The complex is to include an exhibition hall, 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants and, for gambling, 3,400 slots and 170 game tables, officials said.
If approved by the full council and state gambling officials, Bally’s aims to open a temporary casino by the second quarter of 2023 — the city says that will be located downtown at the landmark Medinah Temple building — with the permanent casino slated to open in the first quarter of 2026.
The Medinah Temple building, a roughly 130,000-square-foot structure at 600 N. Wabash Ave., has been vacant for almost two years after retail chain Macy’s moved its Bloomingdale’s store out of the site. Chicago developer Friedman Properties, a mainstay in River North real estate, is its current owner.
The Medinah plan has drawn the ire of the local alderman and other opponents, who argue it will bring too much crime and traffic to an area without enough police resources to handle the influx.
Even if the project passes through the City Council — a vote could happen as early as Monday — plans for the temporary and permanent casinos must still win approval by the Illinois Gaming Board.
Tunney held open the possibility that the committee might again delay a vote on Monday, though he said he would be taking his colleagues’ temperature over the weekend.
”I think we’re going to do our due diligence over the weekend and try to make sure we give honest answers to the questions, whether we agree with them or not,” Tunney said.
Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick contributed.
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