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A mini ‘Eiffel Tower,’ thousands of jobs and a jackpot for the city: Developers make pitches for a Chicago casino

The casino race comes down to three main bidders vying to land the casino that is expected to eventually rake in around $1 billion per year. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks Thursday before public presentations at UIC of five bids to open a casino in Chicago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks Thursday before public presentations at UIC of five bids to open a casino in Chicago.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Breathtaking skyline views, luxury suites, thousands of slot machines — and even an “Eiffel Tower for Chicago.”

A full house of casino developers put it all on the table Thursday in the latest round of Chicago’s long game to open a big-city gambling mecca, making their pitches in the first round of public presentations to win Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s backing to take on a project that’s been sought for years.

The daylong slate of five presentations at UIC’s Dorin Forum was replete with soaring promises of economic jolts, job creation and jackpots for the city’s future casino tax revenue coffers, which are earmarked for its depleted police and firefighter pension funds.

Lightfoot, who is aiming to pick a winner by early 2022, tempered enthusiasm around the lofty claims.

“They look beautiful, and they’re saying a lot of things that really, I think, speak to our values, but as you all know, the devil’s in the details, and my financial team is going to do a deep scrub to make sure that we understand: are these projects really viable?” Lightfoot said.

While the mayor mulls five separate proposals, it comes down to three main bidders vying for the casino that is expected to eventually rake in around $1 billion per year. Billionaire Neil Bluhm and his Rush Street Gaming company are behind two proposals, against two other bids from Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corporation and one more from Hard Rock.

For his first pitch, Bluhm’s $1.3 billion proposal for the so-called Rivers Chicago at McCormick is backed by Farpoint Development, McClaurin Development at the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. In selling their plan to overhaul the seldom-used Lakeside Center, the group said they could start taking bets within a year since the infrastructure is already in place.

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Rivers Chicago at McCormick.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Rivers Chicago at McCormick.
Provided

Bluhm touted his track record at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. “Chicago needs an experienced developer with a steady hand. This is not the time or project for on-the-job training,” he said — a dig at Bally’s, which has acquired a swath of casinos over the past few years, but has launched few on their own.

Bally’s officials responded during their presentation by noting that unlike Bluhm, they’re “conflict-free,” with no other gambling interests in the Chicago area.

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in River West.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in River West.
Provided

“Chicago will be our most profitable property and the flagship of our extensive portfolio,” Bally’s chairman Soo Kim said.

The East Coast company pledged to create more than 18,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs at either of their two proposed sites: the River West printing plant of the Chicago Tribune near Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue, or the McCormick Place truck yard near 31st Street and DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino near McCormick Place.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino near McCormick Place.
Provided

Both plans add up to $1.8 billion in investments and come in two phases that also call for a “Second City” club and a Chicago sports museum.

Bally’s said their South Side plan would generate more money — but they’ve run into immediate opposition from Ald. Sophia King (4th), who has said for years she wouldn’t green-light a casino near Bronzeville.

Kim said Bally’s hasn’t yet had discussions with any City Council members. “We’re good listeners,” he said.

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Rivers 78 casino.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Rivers 78 casino in the South Loop.
Provided

Bluhm’s other casino investment group presented some of the flashiest visions with its Rivers 78 plan with megadeveloper Related Midwest. That $2 billion plan aims to break ground on an entirely new South Loop neighborhood on the 62 vacant acres near Roosevelt Road and Clark Street. They claim the plan would create more than 7,000 jobs, including construction and permanent positions.

It calls for a 450,000-square-foot casino, a half-mile riverfront “promenade” and a 1,000-foot observation tower. All of that would coexist with a massive research center that is also planned for the site, according to Related Midwest president Curt Bailey.

“There’s nothing like this tower in Chicago,” Bailey said. “You’ll be able to rise to the top on a glass elevator — an Eiffel Tower for Chicago.”

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Hard Rock casino near Soldier Field.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Hard Rock casino near Soldier Field.
Provided

Developer Bob Dunn laid out grand visions as well for his proposal in partnership with Hard Rock. They’re calling for a $1.7 billion casino as part of the massive proposed One Central project over the Metra tracks near Soldier Field. It would include a expansive retail district and a transit hub connecting CTA to Metra.

But the overall One Central project hinges on $6.5 billion in state financing that hasn’t been approved. Dunn said Hard Rock is ready “to proceed immediately” with the casino even if the public money doesn’t come through for the rest of the project.

The Hard Rock bidders also noted they’re the only contender with an ownership group of at least 50% Black or Brown investors at the partner level.

Lightfoot will make the final choice on which proposal advances to the City Council. The chosen developer would then have to apply for state approval. Lightfoot wants the completed casino built by 2025.