Mayor Lightfoot leans toward Bally’s — and it’s up to City Council to ensure deal isn’t a sucker’s bet
If Chicago history has shown us anything at all, it’s that when a city deal pitched as a good thing instead results in unanswered queries and general queasiness, it’s everyday Chicagoans who end up suckered.
It looks as if Mayor Lori Lightfoot will likely put all her chips on the Bally’s Corporation bid to build and operate a city-owned casino at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street in the River West neighborhood.
But as every gambler knows, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, even when a hand looks — to the bettor, at least — like a winner.
And it’s even more the case if Bally’s is picked as the casino developer and operator, as first reported on Tuesday by Chicago Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman, Mitchell Armentrout and David Roeder.
Bally’s has never built a casino from the ground up in a market as large as Chicago, which raises alarms for us. So does this point: Most of the 14 casinos Bally’s owns nationwide were first established and operated by other entities, then later acquired by the gaming giant.
Our concern is that the mayor — herself a newcomer to the big-city municipal casino game — may have selected an operator who is as green to the action as she is.
Selection process raises questions
While this Editorial Board questions the Bally’s River West pick, we saw big flaws with all three finalist sites — and the selection process that got Chicago to this point. So did most alderpersons and many residents around and adjacent to the proposed sites, judging from the comments made at a series of recent public presentations on the plans.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, the River West bid, proposed for the current site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant at 777 W. Chicago Ave., packed far too much in a space that’s already small and traffic-congested.
Then there was Rush Street Gaming and Related Midwest’s bid for a site at The 78, a new development slated for Roosevelt Road and Clark Street along the Chicago River.
Residents and their local alderpersons condemned The 78 casino plan as being too large and traffic-heavy for the surrounding neighborhoods, such as Dearborn Park and Chinatown.
At a public presentation last month, Chinatown resident David Wu called the huge proposed gaming complex “the Great Wall against Chinatown.”
We see his point.
Then there’s the strong opposition from state Rep. Theresa Mah, who in a recent Sun-Times op-ed strongly suggested that Lightfoot knew about her stipulation that, in exchange for Mah’s support for a Chicago casino, the casino would not be located near Chinatown.
Killing One Central
One upside to the Bally’s selection is that it slams the door on Hard Rock’s half-baked plan to build a casino on the Metra track air rights just west of Soldier Field.
That casino was pitched as part of One Central, a proposed mixed-use development that we’ve strongly criticized, in which the developer, as part of the project, wants to build a massive transportation center — that no transit agency has asked for — then sell it to the state for $6.5 billion in 20 years.
We can only hope having no casino there helps bury this ill-conceived plan.
The mayor’s selection process also raises our eyebrows.
She appointed a special City Council committee in March and tasked it with voting on all casino matters.
But the committee has only met once and never brought any casino issue to a vote.
“It would look awful to empower this entire committee, and then not have that be the first step in terms of the final decision before the mayor says, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I mean — the whole thing is just a charade,” Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward is close to the Bally’s site, said.
Then late last month, seemingly out of the blue, Lightfoot demanded each of the finalists — if selected as the winner — promise to fork over an upfront payment of $40 million, plus $2 million a year.
The winner could also pay $75 million upfront. Bally’s said it would ante-up $25 million — and was the only finalist promising to kick in.
City Council’s vigilance needed
The selected casino is supposed to pump up to $190 million a year into the city coffers while generating enough revenue to help solve the municipal pension crisis.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) supports the Bally’s casino being built in his ward at Chicago and Halsted.
“I would rather vote for a casino than vote for a property tax increase. Definitely,” he said.
The mayor needs City Council approval before moving on to the Illinois Gaming Board for the final nod.
But City Council must break out the eyeshades, sharp pencils — and even sharper questions — and closely examine every aspect of this deal.
Because if Chicago history has shown us anything at all, it’s that when a city deal pitched as a good thing instead results in unanswered queries and a general queasiness among elected officials and the populace — as has been the case during the run-up to Bally’s likely selection — it’s everyday Chicagoans who end up suckered.
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