It took three decades for city leaders to elbow state lawmakers into authorizing a Chicago casino.
It’s been almost two years since Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office finally hit the jackpot in Springfield.
And it could be another four years before the long-sought big city gambling mecca finally opens — but state regulators better not let the process drag on longer than that, an “impatient” Lightfoot warned this week.
As the first-term mayor prepared to formally invite casino developers to the table on Thursday to submit proposals to build and run Chicago’s first legal gambling house, Lightfoot threw down an early gauntlet to the Illinois Gaming Board, which has the final say on who gets the coveted casino license.
“A big part of the issue is making sure that the Illinois Gaming Board really puts in the time and resources that are necessary,” Lightfoot said Tuesday, previewing the city’s request for casino bids.
“Once we present a proposal to them, we’ve got to move forward expeditiously. And again, I don’t want to prejudge it, but I’m looking at the time, like the time it takes for the Gaming Board to do its work — it’s got to speed up.”
That’s been the complaint of leaders in some of the five other municipalities that were granted new casino licenses as part of a massive gambling expansion signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the summer of 2019. Seventeen months and counting since the other casino applicants submitted bids to the board, just one project has gotten off the ground — and that was only after months of public prodding from Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara.
Chicago’s mega-casino is already months behind the state’s other bids because Lightfoot’s team had to go back to Springfield last spring to push a legislative fix lowering the gaming tax rate that a state-hired consultant deemed “too onerous” to attract any developers.
Gaming Board Administrator Marcus Fruchter has pinned licensing delays on the COVID-19 pandemic and said during a meeting Wednesday that his agency “has been and will continue to studiously follow the rules and requirements for the new casino licensing process.”
But with her other cards falling into place, Lightfoot doesn’t want to see a drawn-out investigative process delay an “exciting opportunity” for a city clamoring to pump new tax revenue into its desperately underfunded police and firefighter pension funds.
“This is 30 years of futility finally coming to fruition, so it’s an exciting moment for us and I want to move forward as expeditiously as we can,” Lightfoot said. “I’m confident that we’ll work with the governor and his team to emphasize we’ve got to bring this casino online as quickly as possible. We’ve done our hard work, we’re gonna continue to do that hard work, and we can’t have unnecessary regulatory delays slowing us down.”
For now, the dice are in the city’s hand. In soliciting proposals Thursday, Lightfoot’s office also released its most thorough timeline yet for the city’s selection process.
Developers have until Aug. 23 to submit proposals, and will make public presentations in late September, according to the mayor’s office.
Lightfoot’s office will pick “one or more qualified applicants” and, through the end of the year, hold community meetings and negotiate “host community agreements” with those potential developers.
“We will take the lead in making sure that we’re being responsive to local residents, based upon what they articulate to us as to what their needs are,” Lightfoot said.
Then, early next year, the mayor’s office will select a final applicant to put up for approval from several city agencies and ultimately the City Council. After that, the chosen developer would apply for Gaming Board approval.
Lightfoot said she expects the finished casino to open by 2025, though an operator can set up shop at a temporary site once the developer gets state approval.
The biggest question remains unanswered: where will the casino break ground?
The city is leaving it up to developers to draw up visions at their preferred sites.
“I obviously have my thoughts about where I think the best location would be, but I’m gonna leave that to the operator,” Lightfoot said. “I don’t need to tell these folks how to do their business.”
It’s a safe bet applicants will suggest a downtown location. Eight of 11 development groups who responded to an informal city request for information last fall said a central site would be most lucrative.
But “it’s not just the location that’s important,” Lightfoot said.
“It’s going to be: Who is the operator, what’s your track record of success? What is the vision for this entertainment complex and how does that match up with our time?” she said.
Among other requirements, Lightfoot wants developers to commit to at least 26% minority business enterprise participation and 6% for women-owned businesses, with 50% of work hours set aside for city residents.
As for the structure itself, the city wants to see “a high-quality, architecturally significant design” that fits “seamlessly into Chicago’s existing landscape and communities.”