Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday pinpointed five South and West side sites for a Chicago casino, but one — in historic Bronzeville — was condemned by the local alderman as akin to “putting a casino in Harlem.”
The possibility of a casino at that site, once home to Michael Reese Hospital at 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, was “appalling and offensive,” said Ald. Sophia King (4th).
Following the mayor’s recommendation, a consultant hired by the Illinois Gaming Board will now study the financial feasibility of that site and the other four:
• A site near the Harborside International Golf Center site at 111th and the Bishop Ford Freeway.
• Pershing Road and State Street.
• Roosevelt Road and Kostner Avenue.
• The former U.S. Steel parcel at 80th and Lake Shore Drive.
Conspicuously absent are two previously-mentioned possibilities: McCormick Place East, otherwise known as Lakeside Center, and Navy Pier. Both are closer to downtown, where many have argued a casino should be located to bring in maximum revenue for police and fire pensions.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has expressed his preference for a Chicago casino outside the downtown business district and away from McCormick Place.
Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said the sites were identified simply because the consultant “can only afford to study five sites.” By design, four out of the five are controlled by the city. Only the U.S. Steel site is not.
“If you pick sites that are on private land subject to land speculation, you encourage unproductive speculation,” Mayekar said.
“This is not about sites. This is about putting in test cases for ... an economic feasibility study.”
The decision to include the hospital site — purchased by the city for an Olympic Village that was never built — did not sit well with local Ald. Sophia King (4th).
In fact, King was furious.
“The community is adamantly against a casino at the former Michael Reese site. Casinos are known to have deleterious impacts on existing communities, especially communities of color. They siphon all of the inviting amenities that sustain vibrant communities,” King was quoted as saying in a statement.
“The juxtaposition of a casino in the historic Bronzeville community is appalling and offensive given the deep and storied African American history in Bronzeville. It would be like putting a casino in Harlem.”
Mayekar maintained that, “depending on how the feasibility study comes back, the input of the community and certainly of the aldermen is gonna be vital.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) already sent her input on the site in her ward, at Pershing and State.
She doesn’t want it there, either. Pete’s Fresh Market already has committed to that site, which also would include other development, and that is “exactly what my community needs at this location.”
Michael Edwards, CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, said the downtown business group is still convinced that the Loop is the best place for a casino.
“Chicago Loop Alliance has been involved in past conversations around a casino in the city, and we hope that involvement will continue with this administration. During past discussions, a site in the Loop made sense to us given the area’s access to transportation, lodging, entertainment, retail, and other amenities.”
Jack Lavin, CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment and a representative of the hotel industry did not return a telephone call.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th) has been beating the drum for the site adjacent to the Harborside golf courses — a location championed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
She argued again Wednesday that the site, controlled by the Illinois International Port District, is big enough for a hotel and recreational complex, that would serve as an “economic engine” for the Southeast Side.
“There’s no one in this whole city that has the amenities that Harborside has. We have biking, fishing, canoeing. Across the street is the Pullman historical site. We just broke ground on the Ford environmental center. We have Big Marsh. It could be a recreation destination,” she said.
“We have the PGA-ready golf course that we’ve been approached many times to have PGA tournaments. But we don’t have anywhere to feed people and lodge people. So a hotel, casino and marina on the water would something no one else can provide.”
The Harborside site would capture for Chicago “everything that leaves for Hammond” without impacting McCormick Place or the “overall culture or business climate” of Chicago, the alderman said.
“I have the Horseshoe Casino directly to the east of me that takes in $47 million-a-month. Seventy-eight percent of the license plates that are parked in that lot are from Illinois. ... We’re gonna get the same demographic,” Garza said.
“I’ve made this pitch to every single person that would listen. It’s our turn.”
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) represents North Lawndale. His ward includes the Roosevelt and Kostner site that once was an infamous dumping ground for FBI mole John Christopher, star of the federal investigation known as “Operation Silver Shovel.”
Scott said it would be “poetic justice” to turn the Silver Shovel site into a jobs-and-contracts-generating casino.
“When you think about the history of this site and you think about how it has been forgotten about by the city and other entities — for years and years used and abused — to now put something in that site that will spur for miles and miles around economic development that has been longed for and needed in the community may be just the ticket,” Scott said.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said the five sites identified by the mayor’s office are an appropriate place to start to find a site “proximate to downtown,” but also “begging for new investment and job opportunities.”
But Reilly was somewhat disappointed the list did not include McCormick Place East.
“We’re hearing about the exorbitant costs that would come with tearing down that facility. I’m the kind of person who prefers adaptive re-use. It’s better for the environment. It saves a lot of money. Were there to be a casino license in that facility, that could pose a win-win for the city,” Reilly said.
Mayekar was hard-pressed to explain why Lakeside Center was not included when there is talk of replacing the outdated building.
“You ask, `Why not that site?’ I have plenty of people calling me [and asking], `Why not other sites?’ “ he said.
Until Wednesday, Pritzker’s preference for a neighborhood site had tamped down speculation about downtown properties, such as 62 empty acres at Roosevelt Road and Clark Street now slated for a mixed-use project called The 78.
Lightfoot was highly-critical of Emanuel’s dictatorial, top-down management style. She has promised to listen more, talk less and be more collaborative before making decisions on major projects.
That’s apparently why Mayekar said, “We will run a comprehensive site selection process with community input later in the year. And it is possible that, after that community process, certainly that the Chicago casino could be on a site that’s not identified on this list.”
Contributing: David Roeder