Chicago shouldn’t risk a really bad bet with casino near Chinatown

The risks and costs would be completely disproportionate to the potential gain if the Rivers Casino proposal in the 78 mega-development is approved.

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A group of protester rally outside the UIC Forum demanding that Chicago not build a casino near Chinatown, during the third pubic meeting on the proposed Chicago casino at the UIC Forum, Thursday, April 7, 2022.

Anti-casino protesters rally outside the UIC Forum demanding that Chicago not build a casino near Chinatown, during the third public meeting on the proposed Chicago casino on April 7.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In the coming months, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City Council will make a decision that will impact the lives of thousands of Chicagoans, and I want to take this opportunity to warn the mayor about a really bad bet.

One of the three finalists for a Chicago casino is the Rivers Casino proposal in the 78 mega-development, which borders Chinatown on the north.

A couple of weeks ago, when Rivers Casino/Rush Street Gaming presented their plans along with the developers of the 78, Related Midwest, they were met with opposition not much different from what had been voiced at the meetings about the other sites. Several forum attendees, mainly neighbors from the surrounding area, reiterated their concerns about locating a casino in their backyard.

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Across all three community forums, objections based on congestion, crime and poor neighborhood fit were consistent.

What’s different about the objections to the 78 site, however, is this: It’s a unique situation in which the risks and costs would be completely disproportionate to the potential gain.

First, there are fewer financial proceeds to be gained from this project. The revenue projection for the Rivers proposal at the 78 is estimated to be far less, at $175 million in annual revenues, than either of the two other proposed casinos: the Hard Rock, at $195 million, and Bally’s, at $192 million, whose proposal is the only one that also includes their own additional investment in infrastructure improvements.

If the objective for building a casino in Chicago is to collect revenue for the city, the 78 project offers the least in this cost-benefit analysis, and the additional costs make it an even worse bet.

Second, the mayor would alienate more neighborhood residents by choosing this location compared with one of the others. A survey of surrounding neighborhoods by the 78 Community Advisory Council found that 75% of respondents were strongly against a casino at that location. The survey respondents, located all along the Archer Avenue corridor, represent two main constituencies that strongly oppose the casino for two reasons.

South Loop residents want to maintain a neighborhood where they can stay and raise their families. These are stable, middle-class households that contribute significantly to the tax base and whose potential departure from the city would have severe repercussions on the city’s long-term revenues.

Another group of opponents is the Chinese American community. There has been considerable concern repeatedly expressed about the impact of gaming on a vulnerable population living and working nearby. The Chinese community has a long history with problem gaming as well as predatory marketing on the part of casinos. A new casino located right next door to Chinatown would be particularly harmful in this context.

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But the Chinatown community also stands to risk a tremendous loss in business and tourism dollars if the Rivers casino were built next door. In their presentation, developers described plans to make the area into a new tourism center and attraction, on the scale of Navy Pier or the Museum Campus. However, a new tourist attraction in such close proximity to an existing tourist attraction — Chinatown — would have a devastating impact on the mom-and-pop, immigrant-run shops and restaurants already in existence.

Casinos, as we all know, employ strategies to attract their clientele and keep them on the premises for dining and gaming. Chinatown businesses stand to lose as a result.

Finally, the mayor stands to lose further credibility with me for not keeping her word. Back in 2019, when the Legislature was asked to approve gaming within the city limits, I was deeply ambivalent, but ultimately agreed because of the revenue needs of the city and state. I insisted, however, on the stipulation — which I shared with the mayor — that the resulting casino should not be located anywhere near Chinatown.

The mayor has not been great about keeping her promises, but at least on this issue, I’m hoping she will see what this decision will cost her and her constituents, and avoid making a really bad bet. 

State Rep. Theresa Mah has represented the 2nd District since 2017.

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