Bally’s boss promises casino will showcase ‘authentic’ Chicago

Voicing no concern about violence or rising costs, Soohyung Kim also said city is urging him to put a temporary gaming center in Medinah Temple.

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Soohyung Kim, chairman of Bally’s, the company city officials have chosen to operate a Chicago casino in River West.

Soohyung Kim, chairman of Bally’s, at the announcement Thursday that his company is the city’s choice for a casino license.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Savoring his victory in Chicago’s casino sweepstakes, the chairman of Bally’s said Friday he aspires to build a gambling and entertainment complex with a “best of Chicago” theme and has no misgivings about the project because of inflation or a spike in crime.

“I grew up in New York City in the ’80s. I think people have to put it all in context,” Soohyung Kim said Friday in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re committed. We think [Chicago] is a wonderful tourism market.” He also said the economic spinoff from his project will help the city reduce violence.

“The antidote for crime is jobs, it’s economic activity, it’s people taking pride in their neighborhoods,” said Kim, who pledged to be a good neighbor for the River North and River West neighborhoods around the casino site at 777 W. Chicago Ave., currently the Chicago Tribune printing plant.

Citing a recent change, Kim said the city began urging him a few days ago to put a temporary casino in Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Ave. He said he prefers that the temporary casino go just north of the Tribune plant, at 700 W. Chicago Ave. The city, however, has said it wants to speed up plans to replace the Chicago Avenue bridge over the Chicago River and believes that would complicate his original plan for a temporary casino, Kim said.

Medinah Temple, a city landmark and former site of a Bloomingdale’s Home Store, could host 800 gaming positions, according to a city report.

River North has seen an increase in violence and many residents have voiced staunch opposition to any casino, temporary or permanent, worried that crowds will yield more crime.

Kim said that’s a “weird thought” because casinos must be extremely secure, with cameras everywhere. “It’s the state’s money,” he said, referring to revenue sharing with state and local government. “We’re just collecting it. Don’t mess with the state. It’s like Fort Knox.”

The city “drove a hard bargain” with Bally’s and persuaded the company to submit a more elaborate plan, he said. Bally’s originally planned something more typical of a casino, a basic billion-dollar box to hold the tables and slot machines, Kim said. He said the building was low-slung, like the Tribune printing plant.

“The city said, ‘No, no. If you’re going to get this license you’re going to have to build something that attracts tourists,” he said. “They’re very focused on, actually, the razzmatazz.”

The response was to add space for entertainment, restaurants and shops that represent neighborhood-based businesses and culture. Kim said the aim will be to provide a one-stop tour of “authentic” Chicago.

Bally’s $1.7 billion proposal, which includes an upfront pledge of $40 million to the city, won Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s backing over submissions from Rush Street Gaming, chaired by billionaire Neil Bluhm, and Hard Rock International, both for sites just south of the Loop. The city is counting on $200 million annually in casino revenue to bolster police and fire pension funds. Approvals are still needed from the City Council and the Illinois Gaming Board.

Kim said inflation “doesn’t scare us” because Bally’s can manage expenditures on what’s likely to be a three-year construction project.

He said he expects no issues with the approvals. The state gaming board already has vetted Bally’s because it owns a casino in Rock Island and Kim, through another company, owns the Casino Queen in East St. Louis. Having no operations in the Chicago area became a selling point for Bally’s as it could claim no business conflicts.

Kim disclosed he’s in talks with Tribune Publishing to help relocate its printing operation. Called the Freedom Center, the site opened in 1981 and is where the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and other papers are printed.

The Tribune uses a small part of the 30-acre site, Kim said. “We can move them right on-site, we could move them off-site if they think there is something better or we can just give them cash and they could move,” he said.

“The requirement is to replace their facilities. We actually have a move option at our own discretion. We just have to replace their facilities.”

Nexstar Media Group owns the property and would sell it to Bally’s. Tribune has previously said it has a lease there until 2023, with two, 10-year renewal options.

Par Ridder, general manager at Chicago Tribune Media Group, said only: “We have seen the mayor’s announcement and will be working with all parties to find a solution that works for everyone.”

Kim is the founding partner of the New York-based hedge fund Standard General, through which he owns 22% of Bally’s stock, according to its latest disclosure. On Thursday, just before the city’s coronation of Bally’s as the casino winner, the gaming company rejected Kim’s bid to buy the rest of it at $38 a share. The shares closed Friday at $28.90.

The rejection has no impact on his zeal for the Chicago casino, Kim said.

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