A rendering shows what a $1.7 billion Bally’s casino at the Tribune Publishing site at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street could look like. Right: Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) speaks at a City Council meeting in June 2021. Credit: Bally’s/SCB; Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CITYWIDE — Alderpeople called Bally’s leaders and city officials on the carpet Monday, asking their colleagues to pump the brakes on the Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s fast-tracked casino plan.

Alds. Brendan Reilly (42nd), Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Michele Smith (43rd), whose wards would neighbor the $1.7 billion River West casino planned for the Tribune Publishing site, all oppose the proposal, they said at the city’s second special casino committee meeting Monday. In calling on his colleagues to slow down the city’s rushed process, Reilly likened the casino to the much-loathed deal to privatize Chicago’s parking meters.

“The last time we were given less than two weeks to vet and approve a deal, it blew up on our faces and it was called the parking meter deal,” Reilly said in the six-hour meeting.

Hopkins drilled Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar about the city’s rushed timeline, asking how it was possible Lightfoot told reporters May 3 the city’s casino evaluation committee hadn’t met, yet the committee’s final recommendation was revealed two days later. Mayekar said the evaluation committee met the evening of May 3 after Lightfoot talked to reporters.

“I don’t think I could have made this decision in one day,” Hopkins fired back, demanding to know who was part of the evaluation committee. “I don’t think I could have woken up in the morning undecided and come to a conclusion by the end of the day. That strikes me as implausible.”

Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett denied the decision was made in “one day,” saying the final recommendation is a cumulation of seven months of work. The names of evaluation committee members won’t be released released while the city’s vetting process is ongoing, she said.

Casino committee chairman Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) tried to rein Hopkins in, asking him to be “objective and not be overly critical about the charade.”

Lightfoot’s administration officially filed a proposed casino ordinance Monday which would pave the way for Bally’s to open a casino at the prime riverfront site. It’s expected to be approved by the committee by the end of the month and sent to City Council for final approval, Bennett said.

Reilly said the quick turnaround of the ordinance and the anonymity of the committee evaluating the casino is suspicious.

“Now we’re told because we’re in a [request for proposals process], these are all secret meetings and these are all secret lists of people and we can’t share who made this decision,” Reilly said. “For a deliberative body like the City Council, that’s a horrible thing to hear.”

Smith proposed delaying City Council’s casino vote by a month of two to give alderpeople more time to consider the deal. The $40 million in projected casino revenue, which the city wants to earmark for its 2023 budget, can still be included, she argued.

“We make those kinds of changes all the time,” Smith said.

But the city wants the money “in hand” before the budget cycle and wants to get the ball rolling with the Illinois Gaming Board, which will issue the final stamp of casino approval, Bennett said.

Only two alderpeople who spoke at the meeting back the casino plan: Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose ward includes the River West site that would house Bally’s permanent casino, and Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th).

“In life, we have to seize a moment,” Burnett said in support of the casino.

RELATED: Most Residents Say ‘No’ To Bally’s Casino At River West Town Hall But Alderman Says A Silent Majority Supports It

Sposato said he fully supports the Bally’s proposal because it’s not being forced down the local alderman’s throat, even though Reilly spoke out against the temporary facility slated for his area. Sposato even encouraged people to buy stock with the company.

“Anybody who wants to buy, Bally’s is less than $27 a share. Get it while it’s cheap,” he said.

A rendering of Bally’s proposal for a $1.7 billion casino to be built at the Tribune Publishing site at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street. Credit: Bally’s/SCB

Temporary Casino Would Make River North A Traffic Nightmare, Reilly Says

Reilly also took issue with Bally’s temporary casino site, the Medinah Temple, which is in his ward. He said the majority of his residents don’t want a casino there and it would make River North a traffic nightmare.

“[I] thought that it was sent back rather clear that Medinah Temple was not a good location for a casino,” Reilly said referring to a letter he sent to the mayor’s office last month.

Reilly challenged city officials, asking if the city has done a formal traffic impact study for the Medinah Temple site. Officials said they have not, but plan to do one in the future. Instead, they referred to a “high-level analysis” that did not include traffic counts.

There are zero on-site parking spots at Medinah Temple but there are 3,200 parking spaces within a two-block radius, city officials said.

Bally’s officials also revealed plans to invest $75 million in 30 projects to improve traffic flow surrounding the permanent casino site at the Tribune Freedom Center.

If these kind of improvements are needed to make “traffic kind of work” at the Tribune site, Reilly asked how the temporary Medinah Temple site would fare with zero improvements.

Bally’s has committed to 30 projects totally $75 million for off site improvements surround its permanent site at the Tribune Publishing center. Improvements include reconstruction and widening of various roads surrounding the potential casino site. Credit: Bally's Coporation

The Medinah Temple is in a liquor sale moratorium zone, which he created in 2017 after “a significant increase in quality-of-life complaints related to a number of liquor establishments operating as taverns or nightclubs in River North,” Reilly previously noted. The Downtown alderman vowed not to lift that moratorium to accommodate the temporary casino.

Mayekar said the city would be able to bypass Reilly, citing a loophole that exists citywide for establishments like hotels, restaurants, sport stadiums and casinos.

“I don’t understand why this is being foisted upon everyone,” Reilly said.

A riverwalk view of the Bally’s Casino proposal for the Tribune Publishing site in River West. The proposal would extend the existing riverwalk about 2,100 feet to connect to the entertainment district. Credit: City of Chicago

What Made Bally’s The Mayor’s Front Runner

Bally’s will bring in a projected $200 million in annual income for the city, the most of any of the three finalists, Bennett said, making it Lightfoot’s eventual front-runner.

Bally’s was also the only proposal to reach a final labor peace agreement with local unions, Bennett revealed.

Bally’s sweetened its financial deal by increasing its upfront payment to city from $25 million to $40 million, she said. It will also pay the city $4 million annually “in perpetuity” which Bennett said is “one of the highest casino fixed incentives of any major US city” post recession.

Compared with the two other finalists, the Hard Rock proposal near Solider Field and Rivers planned at The 78, Bally’s had more immediate cash available which will be earmarked for the city’s 2023 budget, according to the city’s recommendation report.

Most importantly, the city believes that because Bally’s has no competing facilities in the region, it’s in the best position to “aggressively” maximize revenues.

Here’s what’s planned:

  • 170 table games.
  • 3,400 slots.
  • 3,000-seat theater.
  • Immerse Agency exhibition experience.
  • Riverwalk extension.
  • Pedestrian bridge.
  • 500-room hotel.
  • 2-acre outdoor park.
  • Outdoor music venue.
  • Amenity terrace with a pool spa, fitness center and sun deck.
  • Six restaurants, cafes and a food hall.

The project is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs per year and 3,000 permanent casino jobs, according to the Mayor’s Office.

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