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EDITORIAL: Chicago casino planning can’t be roll of the dice

Our city won’t be the same if its casino overshadows its growing convention and tourism industry, or its thriving downtown cultural scene, lakefront, museum campus and riverwalk. That’s why every step forward must be well-thought-out — and transparent.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, discusses the legislative session after it ended on Sunday, June 2, 2019 in Springfield, Ill. Cullerton said Democratic super-majority control, Republican cooperation, and new Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritz
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, discusses the legislative session after it ended on Sunday in Springfield. Cullerton said Democratic super-majority control, Republican cooperation, and new Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s open door helped secure a session packed with what both sides call a balanced budget, a massive state construction program, expanded casino gambling and legalized sports betting, legalization of recreational marijuana use and statutory protections for abortion.
AP Photo/John O’Connor)

Casinos often are built without windows.

But everything else about a new Chicago casino — from picking a site to keeping an eye on operations — has to be done in the light of day.

At the close of its spring session, the Illinois General Assembly authorized the first-ever casino for Chicago, as well as adding others in the south suburbs, Waukegan, Rockford and downstate.

Chicago’s casino will have up to 4,000 seats at poker and blackjack tables, slot machines and video gambling terminals. It will be huge compared to existing Illinois casinos, which are capped at 1,200 so-called gaming positions (but soon could expand to 2,000 positions each under the bill).

So now comes the careful balancing act: Finding a site for a Las Vegas-style gambling palace in our city that doesn’t overshadow its growing convention and tourism industry, or its thriving downtown cultural scene, lakefront, museum campus and riverwalk.

This will be no easy trick for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the City Council and Illinois Gaming Board. Ideally, Chicago’s casino would generate lots of money for the city while giving an economic boost to a Chicago neighborhood that needs one but limiting opportunities for people to become addicted to gambling.

It’s understandable if Chicago officials are caught a little flat-footed. The idea of a Chicago casino has floated around for decades like a riverboat without a rudder, never coming into dock.

In the early 1990s, Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed a family-oriented $2 billion casino-entertainment-theme park complex for near downtown. Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to get a casino to help shore up the city’s pension funds.

But neither mayor could ring up a jackpot in Springfield, as the societal fears about gambling won out over the need for casinos to bring more, much-needed revenue to state and local governments.

The Legislature got over those fears this session.

In a Monday meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said his preference would be to put the Chicago casino in an area that hasn’t benefitted from downtown’s building boom. Lightfoot says the next step is a study to determine the best spot.

That study, we can’t stress enough, needs to be done in the open, not behind closed doors where numerous competing interests will be vying for their favored locations.

Planning for the casino also must deal with growing competition from video gambling machines, which became legal in Illinois in 2012, and newly authorized sports betting. The gambling bill that won approval over the weekend boosts the number of video gambling machines and also the maximum number of permissible bets. It also allows the state’s three horse racing tracks to become “racinos,” and creates the opportunity for at least one more racino-style harness track to open.

Getting a Chicago casino right amid all this won’t be easy.

That’s why the entire process needs to be entirely transparent.

SOURCE: Illinois Gaming Board

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