Don’t rush casino deal, city officials warned
Ald. Brendan Reilly, who opposes the River West site, warned colleagues that “the last time we were given less than two weeks to vet and approve a deal, it blew up in our faces, and it was called the parking meter deal.”
City officials were grilled on Monday over the decision to back Bally’s proposal for a River West casino and were accused of trying to ram through an ordinance without sufficient time to consider a monumental impact on city revenue.
The comments came during the second meeting of a special City Council committee that ostensibly had been appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to make all decisions on the Chicago casino — a committee some council members now accuse the mayor of side-stepping.
“I just wanted to caution our freshman and sophomore colleagues in the council that the last time we were given less than two weeks to vet and approve a deal, it blew up in our faces, and it was called the parking meter deal,” Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who opposes the River West site, said at the hearing.
“The idea that we are going to be voting on legislation in about a week and we just received a copy of the proposed legislation this afternoon and that we have all these questions outstanding, that really gives me cause for concern.”
The tough line of questioning came during a subject-matter-only hearing (meaning no votes would be taken) of the special committee. At the hearing, city officials presented their case for backing Bally’s plans to build a $1.7 billion casino-resort facility along the Chicago River.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) threw doubt on the city’s timetable when it decided to back Bally’s, saying they were “pre-determined to be the winners of this charade.”
While the permanent site of Bally’s casino isn’t in Reilly’s ward, the mayor’s preferred site for a temporary casino, the Medinah Temple, is. The choice of the city landmark to host gaming while Bally’s builds its new home was another point of contention.
Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar said several variables factored into choosing Medinah, including numerous structural evaluations and how quickly it can start generating revenue. The goal is to get the temporary casino running by 2023.
“Additionally, there are a number of stakeholders who have very consistently raised the need for economic recovery” in the area around the Medinah Temple, Mayekar said.
But Reilly disagreed, saying he and his constituents were widely opposed to a temporary casino in his ward.
When the temple was among the possible sites first suggested for a temporary casino, “you received a strong negative reaction, not just from neighbors but from the local alderman, who is me,” Reilly noted. “It seemed that this went away, and as I understand it, the chairman of Bally’s, by his own admission, said this is not his preferred site either.”
Reilly doubled down. If the temporary casino site is opposed by him, residents and the casino operator, he asked, how can the city override them all?
Mayekar pushed back, saying Bally’s is enthusiastic about the historic site and the fact that it is currently vacant, as opposed to other potential locations which not only have tenants and but also present difficulties in cutting a deal.
“You have to have both sides agree to a marriage,” Mayekar said. “And in many of these other sites, there wasn’t an agreement.”
Reilly also called the city out for not conducting traffic impact reports on how a Medinah Temple casino will affect commuters, given that Bally’s has said it will need to invest $75 million in traffic infrastructure to ease congestion at the permanent location.
“I am not satisfied with a lot of the answers I got to our questions today. I hope my colleagues aren’t,” Reilly said. “We’re being told that if we don’t approve this soon that we will have no choices but to raise property taxes, [but] we’ve been receiving this kind of drip-drop of information from the administration. … We are being asked to review something that is literally being changed as we go.”
At the start of the meeting, a new casino ordinance was emailed to committee members. Ald. Thomas Tunney (44th), chairman of the special committee, said that proposal should be a “reference point” during the hearing, but no copy was made available to the public at the start of the hearing.
The development will displace the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant. Bally’s is proposing not just a casino, but also a hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, an extension of the Riverwalk, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants and a terrace with a large pool spa.
That permanent location sits in Ald. Walter Burnett’s 27th ward. He has been unwavering in supporting the project, saying it will benefit the community, bring well-paying union jobs, enhance security and boost the local economy.
A public meeting on the proposed site is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the UIC Dorin Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road.