Bally’s River West casino proposal gets city nod

Bally’s was picked over two rival bids involving South Loop sites: one by gaming behemoth Hard Rock International and another by hometown favorite Rush Street Gaming, chaired by billionaire Rivers Casino mogul Neil Bluhm.

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An artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in the River West neighborhood.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in the River West neighborhood.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot is betting big on Bally’s.

Lightfoot on Thursday confirmed the East Coast gambling company as her pick to run the city’s coveted casino at the busy River West site of the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant.

The mayor’s choice for the house of chance, first reported Tuesday by the Chicago Sun-Times, marks an upset of sorts for Bally’s. The publicly traded company has acquired rather than built most of the 14 casinos in its national portfolio — none remotely close in size to the $1.7 billion casino-resort they envision along the Chicago River.

Besides the casino, Bally’s proposal at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street includes a hotel; a 3,000-seat theater; an extension of the Riverwalk; a pedestrian bridge; an outdoor park; an outdoor music venue; a terrace with a large pool spa, fitness center and sun deck; and six restaurants, cafes and a food hall.

Bally’s projects the development will add more than 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent casino jobs, according to the city.

If City Council members and state regulators sign off on the plan, Chicago’s first legal gambling destination could take its inaugural bets sometime next year at a temporary casino slated for the Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Ave., while construction proceeds in River West, which would open around 2025.

An aerial map of the proposed Bally’s casino, which is marked “I-J-K.”

An aerial map of the proposed Bally’s casino, which is marked “I-J-K.”

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Bally’s earned Lightfoot’s nod over two rival bids proposed for the South Loop: one from worldwide gaming behemoth Hard Rock International and another from hometown favorite Rush Street Gaming, chaired by billionaire Rivers Casino Des Plaines mogul Neil Bluhm.

But Lightfoot said Bally’s stood out, having “the strongest financial offer to the city and the highest minimum capital investment.”

At a news conference Thursday at the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council headquarters, Lightfoot also noted Bally’s was the only bidder without a competitor in the Chicago region, and the only one to negotiate a labor peace agreement — “an essential and key requirement for this project to move forward.”

Bally’s labor agreement locks up key political support from the Chicago Federation of Labor — vital to getting her casino pick approved by the City Council.

Bally’s chairman Soo Kim, speaking after it was announced that his company’s proposal for a Chicago casino had been picked by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Bally’s chairman Soo Kim, speaking at Thursday’s announcement that his company’s proposal for a Chicago casino in River West had Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s blessing.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Under the agreement, Bally’s will commit to 60% minority hiring and “will create a jobs program specifically targeting neighborhoods with the highest levels of unemployment and lowest income,” according to the city.

“We also understand all the responsibilities that we take on by being selected and accepting this selection to build a casino in Chicago, a dream that’s decades in coming,” Bally’s chairman Soo Kim said.

But getting the proposal through City Council will be no small task, as neighboring alderpersons and a vocal contingent of River North residents vehemently oppose the development at an already congested intersection.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in the River West neighborhood.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino in the River West neighborhood.

Provided

The plan is opposed by Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose wards border the ultimate casino site. The temporary site is slated for Reilly’s ward, a late change to the proposal that the City Council member, in a tweet, called a “bait & switch.”

Reilly slammed Lightfoot’s apparent end-around of a special City Council committee she appointed with the stated purpose of voting on all casino matters. That committee has met only once and hasn’t voted on any issues. It is to meet again Monday, but with the mayor’s pick already named, Reilly said the committee amounts “to little more than window dressing.”

Lightfoot dismissed that criticism, saying “there’s been ample opportunity for any member who wanted to be engaged and understand the permutations of this process.”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes the final casino site, has the gambling mecca is preferable to a property tax increase. The city is desperate to get a casino up and running for its estimated $192 million in annual tax revenue, earmarked for underfunded police and firefighter pension funds. Under terms of its agreement with the city, Bally’s will pay the city $40 million up front, and $4 million a year after that.

“It would be irresponsible of us not to have taken advantage of this situation, because who wants to pay more property taxes? I know I don’t,” Burnett said.

An ongoing survey by the River North Residents Association has found more than 86% of 2,311 respondents are opposed to the casino. During a public meeting last month on Bally’s proposal, a parade of residents bemoaned expected increases in traffic and crime.

Bally’s executives have argued that their plan, with a series of traffic signal upgrades, would actually help reduce congestion. Supporters note the property already is zoned for a much denser development than the casino. The City Council in 2018 agreed to allow 4.5 million square feet of offices to be built there, plus a hotel and more than 4,000 residences.

Bally’s will foot the bill for those infrastructure upgrades, according to Jennie Huang Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer. No tax increment financing district will be created for the corporation either, she said during an interview with the Sun-Times editorial board shortly after the casino announcement.

After City Council approval, Bally’s still must apply for a license from the Illinois Gaming Board. That agency has taken at least a year to review each of the other five new casinos authorized along with Chicago’s in a sweeping gambling expansion signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019.

The city is hosting another public meeting on the casino proposal on May 12 from 7-9 p.m. at the UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road. Residents wishing to attend must register online.

Read the city’s full report on the casino selection:

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