Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he’ll push state lawmakers this spring to approve a Chicago casino before he leaves office, suggesting the Port District site on the city’s Southeast Side. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

EDITORIAL: A Southeast Side casino could be a winning hand

SHARE EDITORIAL: A Southeast Side casino could be a winning hand
SHARE EDITORIAL: A Southeast Side casino could be a winning hand

Proposals for a Chicago casino have gone nowhere for years, but a new plan for a casino on the desolate acres of the Illinois International Port District on the Southeast Side just might be the jackpot.

It would not loom over residential areas. It would bring jobs to a part of town that has been hurting ever since the once-bustling port went into decline. And it would put a healthy dent in Indiana’s practice of building casinos near Illinois to grow fat off gamblers on this side of the border.


“It would bring a whole lot of entertainment economy to the Southeast Side,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday, making a lot of sense. “You’d be capturing everything that leaves for Hammond and keep it in Chicago.”

In the past, this page has argued that if and when Chicago lands a casino, it should be the anchor of a bustling entertainment district. We were thinking somewhere close to McCormick Place. Over time, though, the Southeast Side location could become just that, as barren as it looks now.

It offers a stunning view of downtown and would complement the development of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and the nearby Pullman National Monument.

It could be a stopping point for tour boats, and it would mark a whole new approach to developing this neglected corner of town.

But if Chicago is going to build a casino on the Far South Side, we have to hear first from the people of the Far South Side. They need to know exactly what’s in the deal, and the rest of us need to know that they’re ready to play.

Too often in the past — most notably when the city closed 50 public schools all at once in 2015 — City Hall has all but dictated big decisions that were sure to have a huge impact on a neighborhood. So, before all else, City Hall must hold extensive neighborhood hearings, with an open mind and sincere willingness to adjust, shift gears and even back off.

A good example of this more community-sensitive approach was the way the CTA, a few years back, reached out to Red Line commuters and South Side neighborhoods to see how they wanted a modernization of the south branch carried out. Did they want the CTA to do it all at once, which would get it done faster and free up money to rehab stations? Or would they prefer that the work be done only on weekends, to minimize the commuting hassle? Residents chose the quicker option and supported the project throughout.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), whose ward encompasses the entire proposed casino site, said Thursday that folks in her ward are excited about the idea of the casino. The nearby Horseshoe Hammond Casino, which is so close she can walk to it from her home, pulls in $47.1 million a month, she pointed out, and 78 percent of the cars parked there have Illinois license plates. Clearly, Chicago is losing out.

Properly done, a Chicago casino on the border could spark economic growth, creating jobs and generating revenue to rebuild crumbling infrastructure. A properly designed site, Garza said, also could prove to be a boost for the environment, encouraging canoeing, kayaking and fishing in Lake Calumet and hiking in nearby Big Marsh Park.

“It could be a really cool place,” she said.

State Rep. Martin Moylan, D-Des Plaines, however, cautions that there’s no time to get a bill through the current Legislature with only two January days left in the current session. Instead, lawmakers will have to start from scratch on a new bill in the spring session, and lawmakers from other parts of the state will demand much in return — such as casinos of their own. Racetracks will push harder than ever for casinos. And newly elected members of the Legislature will have ideas of their own.

Meanwhile, Moylan said, competition from video gaming, online gaming and perhaps sports betting will make it harder for new casinos to produce big money.

At first blush, the idea of a Southeast Side casino holds great appeal. If done right.

And, above all, if the people of the Southeast Side are up for it.

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