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Lightfoot decision to drop demand for city-owned casino helped deliver winning hand

Mayor says she ultimately agreed to a privately-owned facility to get desperately-needed help for police and fire pensions.

Gamblers play the slot machines lining the walls of the Grand Victoria Casino Tuesday in Elgin in 1999.
The Chicago casino approved by the Illinois legislature would be privately owned - and more than three times as big as existing Illinois casinos, such as the Grand Victoria in Elgin (above).

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she tried for the city-owned casino her predecessors favored, but ultimately agreed to a privately-owned facility more than triple the size of existing Illinois casinos to get the help Chicago desperately needs to bankroll police and fire pensions.

“It’s not that I didn’t [insist on municipal ownership]. We tried, but it was very clear that was a proposal that wasn’t going to make its way through the General Assembly,” she said.

The roadblock to municipal ownership wasn’t necessarily the burgeoning City Hall corruption scandal that threatens to bring down Ald. Edward Burke (14th), even though the timing of last week’s racketeering indictment of Burke couldn’t have been worse for the city’s argument.

“Chicago is the economic center of the state. But the dynamics built up over many decades [that] Chicago can’t be treated differently or in a special way by members of the General Assembly. ... Particularly for people Downstate, they’ve got to go home to their constituents,” Lightfoot said.

“The legislative process is about compromise. We were able to get an important marker down to start the process for a Chicago casino. … People have been talking about a Chicago casino since casino gambling came to this state almost 30 years ago. This is the first time we’ve actually got concrete steps in the right direction to make that hope a reality.”

With an aggressive Democratic governor and Democratic super-majorities in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly, a more flexible Lightfoot came away with the winning hand that eluded her predecessors for nearly 30 years.

The first step toward delivering that mega-casino is a feasibility study with a “tight time-line.” That study should determine if the “taxation structure” established by the General Assembly “is actually gonna be viable, meaning that we can have a product that we can market and get financed,” the mayor said.

Chicago would get a third of casino revenues, under that structure.

“We’ve got to get through the feasibility study first because the economics are gonna drive what the request for proposal is,” she said.

Lightfoot denied that the demand for a feasibility study would give a casino earmarked for the south suburbs a running start on Chicago.

“We were very purposeful and intentional about putting in very tight time-lines so we could get a feasibility study back in a short period of time. And then, if needed to make adjustments in the legislature, we’ll be primed to do that during the veto session this fall,” she said.

The city and Illinois Gaming Board will pick the “independent actor” to conduct the study. Until it’s complete, though, Lightfoot won’t speculate about where she wants to put a Chicago casino. Nor would she say whether she’ll try for an interim casino.

Does she prefer a centrally-located casino accessible to conventioneers and tourists? Or one that would be catalyst for the type of neighborhood development she promised?

“If I answer that question, I might as well give up the site,” Lightfoot said with a smile.

“I’m not gonna get into speculation about what the location should be. A lot of that is also gonna be dictated by what we see in the results of the feasibility study. So, we’ll stay tuned on that issue.”

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was adamantly opposed to slot machines at O’Hare and Midway airports. Lightfoot let that feature go through, bringing even more gambling to the city.

But the mayor said she has retained a “significant amount of local control” and has no intention of turning O’Hare or Midway into what she called a “gambling den.”

“We haven’t set the parameters yet. But, there’s gonna be a very, very high hurdle reached before we see any gaming at our airports. We’re not gonna turn Chicago into a location that’s unrecognizable from where we are,” the mayor said.

As for her decision to nix plans to demolish the above-ground portion of McCormick Place East and replace the lost convention space with a new building over Martin Luther King Drive, Lightfoot said that decision may not be permanent.

She called a halt to it because plans to levy a 1-percent restaurant tax in a broader area had not been sufficiently explained “for me to feel comfortable allowing that to move forward.”

“McCormick Place is incredibly important to the city. Tourism is important. The convention business is important. And I feel confident that we’ll be able to work with [McPier CEO] Lori Healey and her team to put forward a proposal that makes sense but is fair to the neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said.