Bally’s $1.7 billion River West casino gets final zoning approval from City Council

Chicago’s 30-year quest for a casino is now in the hands of the Illinois Gaming Board.

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A rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino the hotel tower along Chicago Avenue.

A rendering of the proposed Bally’s casino shows the hotel tower on Chicago Avenue.

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Chicago’s 30-year quest for a casino and entertainment complex that city officials are counting on to bail out police and fire pension funds is now exclusively in the hands of the Illinois Gaming Board.

The City Council put the rest of its chips on the table Wednesday, giving Bally’s zoning approval for a $1.7 billion River West casino at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street. The vote was 39-5. Mayoral challenger Sophia King (4th) abstained because her attorney husband “may have represented Bally’s” at some point in the past.

Before the final vote, downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) appealed to his colleagues one more time not to roll the dice with an undercapitalized Bally’s team with no track record running a big-city casino, let alone building a massive project.

“We’re hitching our wagon to an inexperienced team. ... That could come back to haunt us,” Hopkins said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) countered that the casino project is “bigger than anybody’s ego,” adding: “This is something that three administrations have been trying to do. This mayor got it done. ... With this casino, we’re gonna get $200 million a year, man, to help us out. We’re talking about 6,000 jobs” in a neighborhood “we used to call Ghost Town.”

After creating a special Council committee to consider “all things” casino, Mayor Lori Lightfoot bypassed that committee, choosing Bally’s in early May. Alderpersons went along with her choice three weeks later.

“This process was like nothing we’ve ever done before. ... This one seemed it was literally turned on its head,” downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said Wednesday, pointing to committee votes that occurred before traffic studies and safety plans had been delivered to Council members.

Retiring Zoning Commitee Chair Tom Tunney (44th) noted “casinos have been dreamed about — whether it’s a nightmare or a dream” for 30 years, that “there’s risk in everything” and that the primary casino vote “has already happened” back in May.

Wednesday’s zoning vote marks the final stage of Council approvals for the massive project.

In addition to a casino with 4,000 gaming positions, the zoning allows for a 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater and event center and a 2,100-square-foot riverwalk and park along the Chicago River.

To appease local residents concerned about noise, crime and traffic, a proposed pedestrian bridge and outdoor theater were eliminated.

A rendering of part of the casino development along the Chicago River.

A rendering of part of the casino development along the Chicago River.

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Earlier this week, there appeared to be a hiccup in what had been a smooth approval process. Burnett, the casino’s biggest champion, threatened to “raise a lot of hell” if he didn’t see in writing the minority hiring agreements Bally’s had made with labor unions.

For years, Burnett has criticized those trade unions for shortchanging minorities.

But after being bombarded with phone calls — from top mayoral aides, union leaders and Bally’s officials — Burnett dropped his threat, saying he’s convinced the casino giant will honor its promise to build a workforce composed of 60% minorities and 45% women.

“I want to make sure people from Cabrini, people from my neighborhood, can get jobs. I got that commitment,” Burnett said Wednesday.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) doesn’t buy those lofty promises. In 24 years on the Council, Beale said, he’s “never seen” any development with 60% minority participation. He called Bally’s goal of filling 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs “unrealistic.”

Hopkins and Reilly have spent months trying to persuade their Council colleagues to reject Bally’s bid.

Portraying Bally’s as a shaky partner, they have pointed to the company’s decision to buy the Tribune’s 30-acre Freedom Center printing plant on the site for $200 million, then enter into a sale-lease back agreement with Oak Street Real Estate Capital of Chicago. They have questioned whether the River West casino will ever provide the $200 million in annual revenue city officials are counting on to help rescue police and fire pension funds hovering dangerously close to bankruptcy.

“If Bally’s defaults, Oak Street will own this casino,” Reilly said Wednesday, adding that Wall Street is “very skeptical” about Bally’s ability to fund the project.

At a celebratory news conference that followed Wednesday’s meeting, Lightfoot told reporters, “I don’t have any concerns whatsoever” about Bally’s ability to finance the casino project. She branded the money questions “nonsense.”

“We vetted this 20 ways to Sunday,” she said.

“Bally’s has secured — right now, today — over $1.7 billion for building this casino. They have the money to get it done.”

Bally’s has argued that there is nothing unusual about the $500 million sale-lease back arrangement. In fact, the company can raise $635 million more from the sale-lease back of other casinos and can access $500 million more under a line of credit.

As in May, the lobbying muscle of organized labor and the revenue, job and contract-generating juggernaut the casino complex could provide was simply too much to overcome.

South Side high school TIF funding approved

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council agreed to provide $8 million in tax increment financing to the Chicago Board of Education to help build a controversial, $150 million high school on CHA land at 2450 S. State St.

Critics have questioned whether a school system suffering from low enrollment should build any new schools, let alone one from which state Rep. Theresa Mah has promised to block $50 million in state funding.

But City Council members Pat Dowell (3rd) and Nicole Lee (11th) said there was a “huge population explosion” in the immediate area forcing more than 2,000 local high school students to travel long distances to schools outside their neighborhoods.

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