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Bally’s Casino Plan To Face First Test Of City Council Support As Lightfoot Looks To Fast-Track Vote

Aldermen who have raised a stink over Lightfoot’s pick for a casino at the Tribune Freedom Center site in River West will get their chance to grill city officials Monday.

A rendering of the Bally’s Tribune casino plan.
City of Chicago

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CHICAGO — Aldermen who have raised a stink over Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s choice of the Bally’s Corporation to build a casino at the Tribune Freedom Center site will get their chance to grill city officials and executives of the Rhode Island-based entertainment company during the second-ever scheduled meeting of the City Council Special Committee on the Casino on Monday.

The meeting will be a critical early litmus test as the mayor looks to wrangle 26 votes for her preferred plan before the end of May while at least two downtown aldermen gear up for an all-out war to stop it.

The 34-member committee, which Lightfoot launched in March in an effort to “streamline” the approval of a Chicago casino, is scheduled to meet virtually at 11 a.m. Monday for a subject matter hearing on the Bally’s plan. The mayor’s administration unearthed new details of the proposal when it announced Bally’s as the final choice on Thursday — including the location of a temporary gambling facility at a historic building in River North. 

Following a round of private briefings with aldermen on Friday, the committee meeting will include “the team from Bally’s in addition to the relevant city departments once again,” according to Bennett Lawson, chief of staff to casino committee chair Ald. Tom Tunney (44th).  

The committee is charged with approving a “host community agreement” with the winning casino site before it heads to the full council for approval. Its next step would be a hearing with the Illinois Gaming Board, and then back to the City Council for zoning and potential financing and transportation-related approvals, Lawson said. 

Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett and other officials told aldermen during Friday’s briefings that they’re looking to pass an ordinance related to the casino this month, multiple sources told The Daily Line. They did not specify what the ordinance would authorize or allow, saying those details were forthcoming. 

Officials are looking to pass the approval through the special committee on May 20, they told aldermen. A special Monday City Council meeting is planned for May 23 with the broad understanding that the measure will be deferred and published so it can be approved the following Wednesday. 

“The mayor knows the longer this drags out, the more political damage she incurs with the drip-drip-drip of the lack of transparency and the behind-the-scenes corruption — and I use that word intentionally,” Ald. Brian Hopkins (2) told The Daily Line on Sunday, referring to Crain’s reporting that the city let Bally’s pay a lower application fee than its competitors and include a clause in its application that will allow the company to buy out minority investors. “The longer her opponents have to capitalize on that while this thing is still a live torpedo on the water, the more damage it does to her, and the closer it gets to her election.” 

The Bally’s plan and the other two casino finalists faced tough questions from members of the casino committee during the special committee’s inaugural meeting last month. The Bally’s plan faced especially sharp skepticism from Hopkins, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose wards are near the River West site. 

Aldermen “met for two hours, asked a lot of really smart questions, received no answers during the committee and then received written answers to those questions [Thursday],” Reilly said on the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman Show podcast on Friday. “That, I think, shows the process was designed to engineer a specific outcome, Bally’s, and here we are.”  

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who represents the Tribune site, expressed misgivings about the plan before last week but said he would likely vote in favor of whichever plan Lightfoot presented. And during an announcement event on Thursday, he gave a full-throated endorsement of the Bally’s plan. 

“I’m not scared of progress,” Burnett said at the announcement event. “I’m not afraid to have this casino to be built in our ward that is going to help our police and our firemen.” 

City leaders are relying on revenues from the casino to shore up the city’s ailing police and fire pension funds. 

“It would be a disservice for us as government, who have a fiscal responsibility to our citizens, not to allow this casino to be built in our city, not to allow for all those out-of-town folks [to be] spending money in our city,” Burnett said. 

But Reilly, who represents the area of River North just across the river from the Tribune site, has only amped up his criticism of the plan since Thursday’s announcement. 

Reilly sent a letter to Tunney on Friday asking that “every witness appearing before the Special Casino Committee at Monday’s hearing (and subsequent committee hearings) be required to testify under sworn oath.” 

“As you remember, this City Council has been burned before by the untruthful public testimony and artfully massaged data: in the now infamous Chicago Parking Meter deal” of 2008, Reilly wrote in the letter. “I remember many of us, once realizing the City had been burned, wished at the time that we had put every witness who testified to the strength of that bad deal under a sworn oath.” 

The alderman has also taken to social media to make it clear he won’t let the Bally’s plan pass quietly. 

“How about putting the casino in a neighborhood near downtown that actually needs the economic boost to help jump-start neighborhood investment & support struggling local business corridors?” Reilly tweeted on Thursday. “That makes a lot more sense to me than putting it in an area that doesn’t need the help.” 

The downtown alderman also took aim at Bally’s plan to open a temporary casino next year at the historic Medinah Temple at 600 N. Wabash Ave. in the 42nd Ward. Reilly called the move a “bait & switch” after the operator had previously planned to open the temporary site near the Tribune facility. 

“I’m 100% against the temporary location being in River North and informed the Mayor’s Office of that a while ago,” Reilly tweeted. He also noted that the Medinah Temple is in a liquor sale moratorium zone because “[t]hat area of River North continues to struggle with alcohol-related quality of life issues and crime.” 

“…so enjoy the cards & apple juice,” he wrote. The City Council typically only lifts and imposes liquor moratoria at the direction of local aldermen. 

Lightfoot on Thursday dismissed Reilly and the project’s other City Council detractors, saying she is “not concerned at all” about dissent among aldermen. 

“We have and we will continue to engage with City Council members,” Lightfoot said. “There are going to be some that vote ‘no,’ and that’s how the world turns. But I’m more than confident that we will have a good solid majority that says yes.” 

Hopkins said he isn’t so sure. He’s already begun countering the mayor’s vote-whipping campaign by “making those one-on-one calls” to persuade his colleagues not to let the plan through in its current form, he said.  

“I am not as confident as Lori Lightfoot that she’s got 26 votes in her pocket today,” he said. “In fact, I do not believe she does. Now, we don’t have 26 to stop it either — there’s more than a handful of aldermen who are not ready to say one way or another what they’re going to do.” 

Hopkins and other detractors have called into question the mayor’s timeline for announcing a casino finalist, saying they thought the committee would have more time to vet all three proposals. 

Asked about those complaints on Thursday, the mayor said additional meetings “are happening before there’s a final decision. The council’s got to vote. That’s the final decision.” 

Reilly tweeted that her explanation was “a clever use of semantics,” saying he and other aldermen had been led to believe as recently as last week that the casino committee would have more time before Lightfoot made her pick. 

The agenda for Monday’s meeting calls for a discussion on “the finalists selected to develop a casino in Chicago.” 

Asked on Friday whether Tunney had originally expected to take up all three proposals at Monday’s meeting, Lawson referred back to the mayor’s comment and said, “This is far from the last meeting on casinos.”