RIVER NORTH — The city’s first casino could open as early as Saturday if all goes well during a dry run of the temporary site this week.
Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Ave., was chosen as the site for Bally’s temporary casino last year and will operate for two years, with an option to extend for another 12 months, while a permanent casino is being constructed at the Chicago Tribune’s publishing plant in River West.
State regulators will conduct a “control test” 4-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Medinah Temple. Around 350 pre-approved guests will attend the “dry run” and will bet using their own money, with a chance to win big, casino leaders said.
Pre-approved guests include family, friends and community partners, Bally’s officials said during a tour of Medinah Temple on Tuesday. Ameet Patel, a senior vice president at Bally’s, said the facility will welcome about 150 guests an hour on each testing day.
“They’ll actually be playing games. So whether you sit down at a blackjack table, or a slot machine…you’ll be playing with live money. If you happen to win from those play sessions, including a jackpot, we will be processing those jackpots and or winnings in the same manner as if we are live,” Patel said.
Officials from the Illinois Gaming Board will assess Bally’s operations and will deliberate during a “dark period” on Friday. A temporary operating permit could be issued as early as Saturday, and the casino is prepared to open immediately, a Bally’s spokesperson said.
Bally’s gave reporters a first look at the inside of the completed facility, which is filled with 750 slot machines, 55 table games, two restaurants and a cafe. Reporters were not allowed to photograph inside the casino, with Bally’s only providing one photo of an interior bar.
Entering the first floor, guests are welcomed by 400 slot machines that can be seen glimmering through the casino’s entrance along Wabash. Some of the slots available include Cash Falls, Butterfly Rise, Queenie and Ocean Spin.
A large circular bar is in the center of the first floor, complete with granite countertops and red leather chairs. Each slot has its own brown leather chair, complete with a red embroidered “B” on the back.
Wabash Cafe, located on the main floor, will offer to-go items like juices, coffee sandwiches and hot dogs. Prices for various items range from $9-$12, according to a menu displayed Tuesday.
The other two restaurants are on the third floor and include an Asian fusion spot seating 54 people and a bistro, serving 65 people.
Table games are located on the second and third floors and include craps, blackjack, baccarat, roulette and other games. Table minimums will vary based on the time of day, but players can expect $15-$25 or higher if playing on the VIP tables on the top floor, Patel said.
Medinah Temple is fully staffed with 700 employees, all certified with the Illinois Gaming Board, Bally’s officials said.
Three hundred of those positions are dealers, who will be tested on Thursday and Friday. Bally’s, in conjunction with City Colleges of Chicago, has been hosting dealer schools since March. Dealers spend upwards of 16 weeks training in order to become certified.
Dealers can start at $9.50 an hour, with the opportunity to earn 25-50 cents more an hour for each additional table game they learn. Tips are pooled and can average another $25-$45 an hour, company officials have said.
The company surpassed its hiring commitments in all major categories, Patel said: 80 percent of Medinah’s staff are minorities, 53 percent are women and 59 percent live in Chicago.
Bally’s had an overwhelming interest in people working at Medinah Temple, with around 16,000 people applying for the jobs, Patel said.
Alderman, Neighborhood Leaders Are Worried About Traffic, Safety
Beyond the blue-and-red splashed carpet and shiny table games, Bally’s has also made some adjustments to its operating plan. Previous plans show the company had planned to have valet parking, but that has since been eliminated.
Bally’s has also said it won’t be contracting with any charter buses to bring people to Medinah Temple, a common and controversial casino practice. Patel said Bally’s eliminated that service because of the potential to worsen traffic congestion, which has been a concern for neighbors.
Still, Bally’s does not have the backing of local Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who has fiercely pushed back against casino plans and told Block Club Chicago he is still “vehemently opposed to the casino opening at Medinah Temple.”
Reilly said he went on a tour of the facility with police last month and said in an email his general impression was “it looks like most other casinos.” He also said he won’t be attending the special two-day test as he has no interest in any of it.
Reilly blasted the Medinah Temple’s traffic study last year, labeling it “seriously flawed” and calling for an independent analysis that never happened.
“For many months I have been asking for detailed traffic and safety plans for the temporary casino — I still have not received detailed plans with firm commitments on police force levels within the radius of the casino and nearby parking garages; traffic management aides; or external private security deployments,” Reilly said in an email.
The Police Department did not respond to questions regarding its safety plan for Medinah Temple.
Brian Israel, director emeritus of the River North Residents Association, had a similar take.
Israel told Block Club Chicago he and others are worried about potential crime in the immediate vicinity.
Israel and the neighbors group organized against the casino, saying it would disrupt traffic and the overall livelihoods of people who live Downtown. Now that it’s official, the organization has shifted focus to maintaining quality of life for neighbors.
“These areas have experienced a significant increase in levels of serious crime in the past few years…if you think about thousands of casino patrons moving through the area at all hours to gamble, it’s just hard to imagine how that makes the situation better,” Israel said.
The Near North (18th) police district, which includes the casino site, parts of Downtown, Old Town and Lincoln Park, has reported yearly increases between 24 to 33 percent in robberies and aggravated batteries since 2020, according to police statistics.
Robberies, which have spiked in other areas, are up 12 percent in 2023 compared to last year, and aggravated batteries are up 16 percent, data shows.
The neighborhood group met with casino officials on Aug. 31 to discuss concerns ahead of opening day, many of them safety-related. In a summary document about that meeting, Bally’s officials said there will be about 100 interior cameras and 12 exterior cameras at Medinah Temple.
Additionally, along with private security, the Police Department will have dedicated officers patrolling a several-block radius of the temporary casino.
Israel said Bally’s staff will offer escorts for people who want one and are leaving the facility.
“We have complete confidence in the CPD’s ability to handle this. However, it’s been widely reported that the CPD is experiencing great challenges in recruiting sufficient officers. …if we’re taking existing officers and assigning them to a casino detail, that could put even more stress on the 18th District?” Israel said.
Israel, who also sits on Casino Community Advisory Council, will be in attendance to observe the practice sessions. He’s not planning on partaking in any of the games, he said.
“The more boring, the better as far as I’m concerned. I want it to be smooth and well-controlled and not exciting,” Israel said.
According to a report from the Sun-Times, the Medinah location is expected to bring in $55 million in tax revenue each year.
The permanent Bally’s casino at Tribune Publishing, 700 W. Chicago Ave., will include 3,400 slots, 173 table games, 500 hotel rooms, a 3,000-seat entertainment venue, six restaurants, a food hall and three bars.
The company has committed to $75 million in infrastructure improvement projects around the casino site, which include projects ranging from synchronized traffic signals to reconstruction and widening of nearby roads.
Tribune Publishing has agreed to vacate the premises by July 2024, paving the way for construction of the permanent site to start next year and be completed in 2026.
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