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Alderman wants casino, entertainment around Lake Calumet

Pritzker’s preference for a neighborhood site has stoked speculation about the best spot.

The industrial scene on the Calumet.Credit: Dale Bowman
Part of the industrial scene near Lake Calumet. Can the area become the site of a gambling and entertainment center?
Dale Bowman

A Chicago alderman spoke out passionately Tuesday for putting a Chicago mega-casino near Lake Calumet in her ward while others in politics and development began debating where the project should or should not go.

“There’s been a lot of chatter. Everybody in real estate is speculating about potential sites,” said a company executive. He said the key is finding a site large enough to accommodate hotels and entertainment so the appeal goes beyond gambling.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza has bought into that thinking. She said the Chicago casino should go on a site in her 10th Ward controlled by the Illinois International Port District.

It’s big enough for a hotel and recreational complex that would serve as an “economic engine” for the Southeast Side, Garza said.

She was staking her claim to any casino windfall one day after Gov. J.B. Pritzker expressed his preference for a Chicago casino outside the downtown business district and away from McCormick Place. The state Legislature over the weekend sent Pritzker a bill authorizing a Chicago casino, something the city has tried to get for years.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she won’t speculate on a site until there’s an economic analysis by an “independent actor.” The gaming legislation requires such a report before a casino site becomes final.

Pritzker’s preference for a neighborhood site has tamped down speculation about downtown properties, such as 62 empty acres at Roosevelt Road and Clark Street now slated for a mixed-use project called The 78.

The site that Garza is pushing is the one that now former Mayor Rahm Emanuel championed before leaving office. It’s on Lake Calumet just south of the Harborside International Golf Center.

“Build a hotel. A casino. Get some canoeing, fishing, biking, hiking at Lake Calumet. ... Big Marsh is right there. … Pullman’s got the historic site. It’ll just be a whole recreational mecca. Everything over there next to Harborside has been remediated. It’s a gorgeous facility,” Garza said.

“If we can add on and bring other recreational activities, we can be the powerhouse. We can connect all that. There’s a giant hill there that was once a landfill that we could turn into toboggans or skiing. It could be a huge recreational facility that people from all over would come to. We could hold BMX tournaments at Big Marsh and PGA tournaments at Harborside and have a place where people can stay and eat and have recreation.”

Emanuel had argued the site would bring a “whole entertainment economy to the Southeast Side” and capture for Chicago “everything that leaves for Hammond” without impacting McCormick Place or the “overall culture or business climate” of Chicago.

Garza made a similar but more forceful argument.

“The 10th Ward hasn’t seen a development like that ever. It’s our turn. It’s our turn. We have the know-how. We have the workforce. It’s our turn to get something like that by us,” said Garza, chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development.

“Obviously, it takes a couple years to build a facility. I’d like to see us drop [a temporary casino] into the old McCormick Place [East] building on the lake so we can get the license up and running. Get that going. Then, build something by Lake Calumet in the port and then, just transfer everything over.”

Yet another parcel frequently mentioned for a casino is the old Michael Reese Hospital site purchased by the city for an Olympic Village that was never built.

Chicago taxpayers are still repaying the $91 million loan used to purchase that site, which turned into a financial albatross when former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Olympic-hosting dream turned into a nightmare.

But local Ald. Sophia King (4th) said Tuesday she does not favor a casino there because the Michael Reese advisory committee doesn’t want it.

“Even before I became alderman, there was a study done around Michael Reese and what should go there and a casino was at the top of the list of what not to be there. So, I’m definitely supportive of what the community wants,” King said.

King cited several reasons for the advisory committee’s opposition to a casino.

“The deleterious impact that casinos have — especially in communities of color. Also, they don’t want a casino to be the economic engine of the community. They want a development that’s multifaceted and brings vibrancy to a community with mixed-use residential, commercial, probably a commercial anchor,” King said.

She said the community has been talking about a science-tech hub at the property, a use that might be incompatible with tourist and gamblers.

Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd), whose Near South Side ward is located adjacent to King’s, said she has “no preference” for a casino site.

“I’m more concerned about the level of African American participation in the whole project from top-to-bottom — from construction to the supply chain to permanent jobs to the investors even,” Dowell said.