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Pritzker: Forget downtown, put Chicago casino in area that has ‘been left out, left behind’

 Pritzker did not name potential sites outside downtown, although in the past, there has been discussion of possibly building a casino at the old Michael Reese Hospital site, the former U.S. Steel South Works location and more recently the port authority land just off the Bishop Ford Freeway. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday he would prefer a newly-allowed Chicago casino be located separately from the downtown business district and away from McCormick Place.

While stressing the decision on locating the casino belongs to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City Council, the governor said his preference is for the casino to be put in an area that hasn’t benefited from downtown’s building boom.

Pritzker would not name potential sites, but his comments would appear to help the prospects of the old Michael Reese Hospital property at 31st Street and the lake or the former South Works property at 83rd Street and the lake. Another possibility is the Illinois International Port District land on the Southeast Side.

“I will say that we don’t want to, let’s say, compete with what I think is important about downtown, which is, you know, this is a business town, right? And McCormick Place is a business showplace, and it’s different than other places, right?” Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.

“You go to Las Vegas for your convention and you know that the people who are coming are not really spending all their time in the show, but love to go because of all the entertainment and everything else. I think in Chicago people come here to do business, and so you want to make sure that they’re separated, let’s say,” he added.

Reese, South Works and the port authority land all have potential and drawbacks as a casino site. They offer plenty of land for what must be a large casino; state legislation authorizes 4,000 gaming positions, or more than three times of the size of any single Illinois casino. But the sites also have drawbacks.

South Works, for example, lacks good highway access. Reese might be too close to McCormick Place for the comfort of the convention industry, which generally hasn’t wanted slots and blackjack tables to distract from their industry meetings and exhibitions. And the port district faces direct competition from Indiana casinos.

“I’ve talked about communities that have been left out, left behind, communities where we need to have some job creation and where this might be beneficial, and I think we can all point to areas that fit that bill in the city,” Pritzker said.

“Rather than call them out, I just would prefer that we’re doing it in areas that haven’t gotten the benefits of all the development that’s occurred in downtown and areas very near to downtown,” he said.

The challenge in that approach is that casinos often don’t benefit their surrounding areas unless they are part of an entertainment district, said planning consultant Stephen Friedman. He was involved in a 2013 review that suggested a casino as one idea for the Reese property.

“If the casino doesn’t anchor an entertainment center, it’s really just a concrete cash register,” he said. “It draws people, but they don’t spend much outside of the casino.”

The Pritzker parameters would rule out Lincoln Yards, a development planned on more than 50 acres of the busy North Side.

One real estate expert said the Reese property, which abuts Bronzeville and is just south of McCormick Place, is the early favorite because it’s close to downtown, offers ample room, is easy to get to, and the land already is in the city’s hands. “It’s not just the casino itself. It’s the entire ring of what happens around it, and that has to be part of the planning,” he said.

The General Assembly passed legislation that calls for the city and Illinois Gaming Board to pick an independent analyst to study a Chicago casino’s feasibility and report within 150 days of the law taking effect. Pritzker is expected to sign the measure.

Lightfoot said she wouldn’t speculate on the site pending the analysis. 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 a 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.”

Lori Healey, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which runs McCormick Place, declined to comment on casino matters. The authority’s Lakeside Center has been mentioned as a casino possibility because it’s now seldom used for conventions.

The agency has proposed tearing it down and building a new convention hall over King Drive. A bill to allow the work died in the legislative session because it called for an expanded tax on Chicago restaurants and bars to fund the work. Lightfoot came out against the proposal.

Another site mentioned for its casino potential is the old Brach’s candy factory on the West Side. But the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the property, has plans for it and has no intention of selling, said company spokeswoman Kristen South.