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Lightfoot sets aggressive timetable for forging ahead on Chicago casino

“I would like to get a final list to recommend to the Illinois Gaming Board some time in the first quarter of next year,” she said. “We’re very, very interested in moving this process along as expeditiously as possible.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11 at Comer Children’s Hospital in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Friday morning, Nov. 5, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she expects to make casino recommendations to state regulators early next year.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday she is “very excited” by the five “well thought out” bids she was dealt last week for a Chicago casino and plans to send a “final list to recommend” to the Illinois Gaming Board “sometime in the first quarter” of next year.

With police and fire pension funds hovering dangerously close to insolvency and mounting police retirements putting even more pressure on the police pension fund, Lightfoot set an aggressive timetable for moving forward on the downtown casino that had eluded Chicago mayors for decades.

“We’re very, very interested in moving this process along as expeditiously as possible because, as you know, the revenue from that casino will fund our police and fire pensions and no time [like] the present for that,” Lightfoot said Friday at an unrelated news conference.

Lightfoot again refused to discuss specific sites recommended by the four development groups.

Pretty much as expected, they include McCormick Place Lakeside Center; the truck marshaling yards adjacent to McCormick Place; the vacant South Loop site known as “The 78”; and the Chicago Tribune’s Near North Side publishing plant.

“I won’t [comment on specific sites] until we make a final decision,” said Lightfoot, who has left the all-important question of site selection up to the developers.

Lightfoot would only say that she is “very excited by the proposals” because they were “all very interesting, very robust and very well thought out.”

“Our team is still going through and analyzing them. Our expectation is that we will bring the various respondents in and let them do presentations,” the mayor said.

Seemingly lukewarm interest in a highly taxed downtown casino forced Lightfoot to push back her original summer deadline for casino bids.

But that didn’t stop major players from stepping forward last week.

They are Rhode Island-based gambling company Bally’s Corporation, Florida-based gaming giant Hard Rock International, and two separate groups with proposals spearheaded by Chicago casino magnate Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming.

Bally’s submitted two separate proposals.

Bluhm’s company signaled it was all-in on a Chicago proposal last month when it pulled out of the running for another new casino slated to break ground in Waukegan. But Friday’s turning of the cards revealed Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming is behind two development groups with names that tip their hand on where they’d like to break ground: Rivers Chicago at McCormick LLC and Rivers 78 Gaming LLC.

Bluhm has long been considered a shoo-in to apply for the city casino license, given his success running the state’s most lucrative gambling mecca, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — in addition to his close ties to the mayor. Lightfoot has received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from Bluhm’s daughter Leslie and her sister Meredith Bluhm-Wolf.

Hard Rock’s bid as HR Chicago LLC came about nine months after the corporation received the Illinois Gaming Board’s OK to break ground on another casino in Rockford — and about five months after it opened a casino in Gary, Indiana, not even an hour’s drive from Lightfoot’s City Hall office.

Bally’s, which last month took control of the former Jumer’s Casino in Rock Island, submitted proposals for two different potential sites: one at the Chicago Tribune publishing center near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street and another at the McCormick Place truck marshaling yard south of the sprawling convention center.

Both proposals call for $1.6 billion investments that include a luxury hotel, indoor and outdoor entertainment center, green space and fine dining.

Lightfoot is close to delivering the Chicago casino that eluded Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. But only after convincing the General Assembly to authorize the tax-and-fee fix desperately needed to make a Chicago casino economically viable and attractive to a developer.

Even after the effective tax rate was reduced from 72% to 40%, Las Vegas mainstays MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment took a pass.

The same Gaming Board consultant also concluded that “only a centrally located casino that is in close proximity to high-quality hotels and other notable tourist attractions” would be able to “meaningfully penetrate the robust tourism trends” the city of Chicago enjoys.

“Tourists generally will not patronize a casino in an area that is inconvenient relative to where they are staying or perceived as unsafe. Nor will tourists be eager to book a room at a casino’s hotel if there are no other easily accessible attractions nearby,” Union Gaming said.

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout