Bally’s wins City Council approval for Chicago’s first casino

The deal is a milestone for the city, which has been trying to get a casino for 30 years

Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot along with a rendering of Bally's River West casino (Getty Images, Bally's Corporation)
Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot along with a rendering of Bally's River West casino (Getty Images, Bally's Corporation)

UPDATED May 25, 2022, 4:40 p.m.: Bally’s $1.7 billion deal to build Chicago’s first casino is imminent after the City Council approved an ordinance and community agreement — a milestone that effectively guarantees the project.

The 41 to 7 vote came after several hours of contentious debate between proponents of the deal and opponents who say the project is moving too fast and there are several conflicts of interest not addressed by the city. One Alderman recused himself and one wasn’t present.

“It is time for a process to just get this in front of the council in a transparent way, and in a competitive way,” Alderman Thomas Tunney, the chairman of the Special Committee on the Chicago Casino said.

Opponents have long expressed concerns about the deal being rushed through and what they consider unrealistic financial projections, but new concerns arose after a Crain’s article from Tuesday night brought to light that the law firm that advised the Lightfoot administration in the casino bid was also paid by Bally’s, the winning bidder.

“The world doesn’t blow up tomorrow if we were to take a bit more time on this,” Alderman Brendan Reilly, who represents the 42nd Ward and is opposed to the project, said.

One of the greatest concerns is whether Bally’s annual revenue projection of $200 million is overly optimistic, with Alderman Raymond Lopez pointing out that the other 11 casinos in Illinois combined generate about that much.

“I don’t believe it, we would have to be a city of gambling degenerates for that to happen,” Alderman Raymond Lopez said. “It’s not going to happen, it’s not realistic.”

Tunney said that about 30 percent of the projection includes revenue beyond just gambling, like parking and property taxes.

About an hour into the debate, things got so heated between Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who opposes the project, and Lightfoot that she began yelling at him and calling him a liar.

“You are a liar! You are a liar here! I sit here and I will not tolerate you besmirching the hard work of so many people who have worked on this,” she shouted. “You may not agree, you may not agree, then vote no. But I will not sit here silently while you besmirch my reputation and the people that work for me from your pettiness of the things you’re trying to do that expose this city to liability sir!”

Bally’s bid to develop a $1.7 billion casino project on the Chicago Tribune Publishing Center in River West was seen as a frontrunner throughout the selection process, and would bring a massive entertainment center and hotel to the 30-acre newspaper printing site.

While the deal had its opponents, it also had plenty of winners beyond the city and Bally’s.

Perhaps the greatest of those is Dallas-based Nexstar Media Group, owner of Tribune Media, the former broadcast group affiliated with Tribune Publishing. Rhode Island-based Bally’s has an option to buy the 30-acre Freedom Center printing plant site from Nexstar for an undisclosed amount. Chicago developer Shapack Partners and Vancouver-based Onni Group also stand to prosper from the deal, with both firms purchasing prominent properties near the development site in deals revealed this week.

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Chicago developer Friedman Properties also stands to benefit from the deal. The company is the owner of the Medinah Temple, which is set to become the temporary casino site, and has been vacant for more than two years.

Residents in River West have objected to the use of the site for a casino, citing the possibility of increased crime, and traffic and the likelihood that the project would lower property values, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Two aldermen whose wards are adjacent to the Bally’s site oppose the proposal, and many residents in the area have expressed dissatisfaction. Walter Burnett, the alderman representing the 27th ward where the site is located, however, supports the project in the name of generating tax revenue.

“This is bringing money to the city of Chicago to help us fill gaps that we have,” Burnett said.

There is also controversy with the temporary casino site. Lightfoot chose the 130,000-square-foot Medinah Temple and former Bloomingdale’s store at 600 N. Wabash Ave. as the site for the temporary Bally’s location.

That was a detour from Bally’s original plan. The temporary casino site was initially at 700 West Chicago Avenue — a former Tribune advertising insertion plant that closed in 2012 — but was changed to the Wabash location at the urging of the city.

The vote marks a milestone for Chicago, where a casino development has been kicked around and viewed as a potential financial savior by city leaders for decades, but never gained serious traction until 2020.

That’s when Governor JB Pritzker signed a gaming package into law that paved the way for a Chicago casino by reworking existing tax structures. Attempts to lure a casino developer last decade yielded no viable proposals because of what was viewed as an overly burdensome tax structure.

Opponents noted that just because it’s taken a long time to get to this vote, doesn’t mean that the process needs to be rushed.

“What are we going to tell our taxpayers of the city of chicago when we fall short?” Lopez said. “I understand that we’ve been waiting and we’ve been trying to figure this out for 30 years. We have to do this right, we have to get this right.”

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UPDATED: Adds winners from the deal.