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Ald. Pat Dowell Says She ‘Cannot Support’ Hard Rock Casino Proposal Near Soldier Field

Her position leaves just one casino proposal — Rhode Island-based Bally’s plan to build a resort in River West — whose local alderman has not come out against a gambling site in their own ward.

A rendering shows the proposed Hard Rock casino.

CHICAGO — Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) “cannot support” Hard Rock International’s plan to open a casino as part of a proposed mega-development in her ward, she announced Monday, citing neighbors’ fears of crime and overcrowding.

Her position leaves just one casino proposal — Rhode Island-based Bally’s plan to build a resort in River West — whose local alderman has not come out against a gambling site in their own ward.

Wisconsin-based developer Robert Dunn of Landmark Development has teamed up with Florida-based Hard Rock to propose a 3,000-slot casino with a 3,500-seat entertainment venue, a 500-key hotel, eight restaurants, six lounges and 166 table games near Soldier Field. It would join the ONE Central mega-development Dunn has pitched to build atop the Metra tracks near 18th Street.

The Hard Rock proposal made the short list of three remaining proposals for a city-backed casino last month, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration nixed two McCormick Place proposals from the running. It is now competing against Rivers Casino and Related Midwest’s bid to build a gaming site on the planned The 78 campus on the Near South Side, as well as Bally’s plan to build a casino on the site of the former Tribune printing plant in River West.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks at a City Council meeting on March 23, 2022.

City leaders plan to tap revenue from the eventual casino to fund Chicago’s ailing pension obligations, making it a critical project for Lightfoot and the City Council to nail down. Dowell, who chairs the council’s Budget Committee, called the casino an “essential commitment” on Monday.

“I believe a casino will support the growth and prosperity of the City by adding a sought-after destination amenity to Chicago’s already world-class tourism and hospitality offerings,” she wrote in her statement. “I know first-hand how vital a casino is to the City’s bottom line. The revenues from a Chicago casino will go a long way towards ensuring we meet our obligations to the Police and Fire pension funds.”

But she added that city leaders must balance the “positive aspects of each casino proposal” against “the needs and wishes of the existing community.”

“The Hard Rock Casino at ONE Central would be dropped into an existing, well-established family community in the Prairie District of Chicago’s South Loop,” Dowell wrote. “Because of that, I have concerns about the density of the Hard Rock Casino proposal.”

Community opposition to the project has been ramping up, with residents sharing concerns during a public meeting earlier this month.

South Loop resident Marj Halperin slammed the developer for failing to present a fully-baked plan to residents, saying the Hard Rock proposal didn’t address public safety concerns or lay out how the casino would fit into the broader community.

Black and Brown residents at the meeting, including Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change (ECCSC) founder Tyrone Muhammad and Watch Guard Task Force Founder Marquinn McDonald, said they want to see Hard Rock commit financially to the broader community — including money and office space for local organizations and financial support for local schools.

A rendering shows the proposed Hard Rock casino.

“How will the money get back to Black and Brown communities in a real way? I don’t necessarily see the benefit of a casino. If anything, it could be a hindrance. The city is dealing with a lot of crime right now. What plans do they have to mitigate that?” McDonald asked.

If the city wants more residents to come around to the idea, they’ll have to be forthright moving forward, McDonald said — and that means offering locals more than just jobs.

For community organizer Amandilo Cuzan, it’s about quality of life concerns. With several large scale projects coming soon to Bronzeville and the Near South Side, a sprawling casino development “sends a wrong message.”

“I appreciate Dowell taking a stand against lazy community development and I hope it encourages the city to look at other ways of generating exciting programming,” Cuzan said.

Dowell echoed these critiques in her statement Monday, citing “an enormous amount of feedback from neighboring constituents.”

“I have concerns about the public safety impacts of the proposal,” Dowell wrote. “I have concerns about the financials of the proposal, and I have concerns about the infrastructure needs of the proposal. And even though the developer of ONE Central has made assurances that the Hard Rock Casino project is entirely separate from ONE Central, the community and I are having a very difficult time separating the two interrelated projects.”

A spokesperson for Hard Rock did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

While support from the local alderman is not technically a pre-requisite for the city to settle on one of the three remaining casino proposals, the unwritten rule of “aldermanic privilege” will likely weigh heavily on the outcome — especially now that a critical piece of the approval process is in the hands of the City Council. At Lightfoot’s direction, the council last month chartered a new Committee on the Chicago Casino to vet the remaining proposals on the table.

Related: Special casino committee won’t have its own budget, won’t be able to bypass Plan Commission 

Ald. Sophia King (4th), who represents the area where Bally’s proposed a casino development at the McCormick Place Marshalling Yards, vocally opposed the plan before city officials cut it from contention last month.

Related: McCormick Place casino bids fell short on jobs, revenue projections: city analysis 

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) dealt a major blow to Rivers and Related’s proposal for a casino at The 78 when he announced his opposition earlier this month, citing a survey of nearly 400 neighbors who overwhelmingly said they oppose the plan. The development team has argued the survey pales in comparison to “tens of thousands” of surrounding residents who support the proposal.

Related: Local alderman says he ‘cannot support’ The 78 casino mega-proposal amid neighborhood opposition

That means Bally’s proposal is the only remaining casino plan on the table with a chance to earn an endorsement from its alderman in its current form, as Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) has not aired any public opposition. However, neighboring Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) has written in multiple constituent newsletters that he has “communicated his serious concerns about the Tribune proposal to members of the Lightfoot administration.” 

Officials in Lightfoot’s administration found in a 103-page “evaluation report” on the casino proposals that the proposed Hard Rock casino could pull in $139 million in annual gaming revenues, $21.7 million in incidental taxes and create nearly 20,000 permanent jobs. It leads its competitors in all three categories.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Daily Line.

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