Illinois’ first-year governor and Chicago’s first-year mayor backed an historic state gambling expansion in the last legislative session while avoiding the toughest question: Are you going for the biggest jackpot or not?
In other words, will there be a downtown Chicago casino, positioned to draw tourists rather than compete with the suburban sites for local gamblers, a declining market?
The report from Union Gaming Analytics, delivered Tuesday to the Illinois Gaming Board, came down decisively on the side of downtown, although it preferred language such as “tourist-centric location.” Not tourist-centric, in its view, were the sites, four on the South Side and one on the West Side that Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked the firm to examine.
The report warned the legislation’s proposed taxation level would stop any casino in its tracks, and it gently suggested the municipal ownership option for a downtown site. State lawmakers will have to take up those important revisions.
But in the meantime, what are the possible downtown locations? To maximize revenue, “you have to be focused on where the tourists are, how they get there and what else they’re going to do,” said Josh Ellis, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. Conversations with various sources, mostly on background, elicit a list with some familiar options and a couple of wild cards:
The Thompson Center: Conveniently owned by state government, which wants to get rid of it. Expandable and in the heart of the Loop, but is the symbolism of wagering alongside City Hall and state offices too much? “There’s a perception issue, yes. But I see it as being right in the Randolph theater district,” said Timothy Brangle, CEO of the planning firm Chicago Consultants Studio.
Lakeside Center: The oldest convention hall at McCormick Place has the broad, dark spaces casinos crave. But transportation is poor, and the convention trade has never wanted gaming tables in their midst to draw people from the meetings and exhibits.
Navy Pier: It draws crowds, but there would be an odd mix with family-oriented attractions. Traffic already is bad. Also, the whole point of casinos is to be in a windowless box. Why put it where there are great views?
Mega-projects One Central and the 78: One Central, near Soldier Field is too far from downtown and needs too much infrastructure to get rolling. The 78 also is too remote from the Loop and too serious in its intent. The proposed development in the South Loop and Chinatown is counting on a University of Illinois tech incubator, corporate headquarters and homes to make a new neighborhood.
300 N. Michigan: Sun-Times columnist Ed Zotti posited Michigan and Lake as the epicenter for the casino market. The 300 N. Michigan site, due for a roughly 50-story hotel and residential tower, is only a block away, nestled among hotels and near Millennium Park. Joel Carlins, co-CEO of Magellan Development Group and one of the project’s investors, said parking would be hard and the floors are too small for a casino.
The Congress Hotel: Jerry Roper, the late CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, used to push the old hotel, 520 S. Michigan, as perfect for gambling. There’s even parking nearby. But there are more college students than tourists in that area, and the owner would have to sell.
Tribune printing plant site: There’s plenty of space to work with at 777 W. Chicago, but this is well out of the way for visitors.
Trump Tower: Our president never could lease the riverfront commercial space at 401 N. Wabash. Lots of deals can be made in Chicago, but not this one.