Lightfoot Chooses Bally’s for Chicago, But Obstacles Remain

Last week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that Bally’s Corp. has been chosen to receive the Windy City’s sole casino license. The company will develop its $1.7 billion venue (l.) at Tribune Publishing Center on the city’s Near North Side. But some city officials are pushing back, saying they didn’t have sufficient voice in the selection.

Lightfoot Chooses Bally’s for Chicago, But Obstacles Remain

Following many months of proposals, public comment and intense opposition from neighborhood groups, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last week that Bally’s Corp. will be awarded the sole license to develop and operate a casino resort in the city. The venue will be located at the Tribune Publishing Center on the Near North Side in the River West neighborhood near Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue.

Bally’s has proposed a $1.7 billion venue with 3,400 slots and 170 table games, plus a 500-room hotel tower, 3,000-seat theater, exhibition experience, Riverwalk extension, pedestrian bridge, outdoor park, outdoor music venue, pool spa, fitness center, sun deck, six restaurants, cafés and a food hall. The project will create more than 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs and will generate approximately $400 million a year in gaming and other revenue for the city and the state.

Lightfoot said, “Bally’s Corp. will create a world-class entertainment district in our city that will delight residents and tourists alike Following significant analyses and community input on all aspects of our three finalists for Chicago’s casino license, the selection committee and I have chosen Bally’s to move forward in the development of the city’s first integrated casino resort.

“We are confident that Bally’s Tribune Publishing Center development will shore up the city’s pension funds, create thousands of good-paying jobs and lead to a bright financial future for our city.”

The two other finalists for the casino license were Rivers at the 78 by Rush Street Gaming, on the south branch of the Chicago River; and Hard Rock at One Central by Hard Rock International, adjacent to Soldier Field and McCormick Place.

Hard Rock issued a statement saying, “The Hard Rock brand is currently expanding its portfolio of casinos, hotels and cafes in 72 different markets around the world. We were honored to have been named a finalist for the Chicago casino.”

The day before the announcement, Lightfoot denied reports that she had chosen Bally’s to develop the casino.

“The reporting today in advance of even the evaluation committee meeting and making a recommendation to me is just not accurate,” she said. “We have a very specific process, and the process is there is an evaluation committee that’s been hard at work through this process. They will evaluate all the information that has been provided by the three finalists and they will give their recommendation to me.”

Now Bally’s and the city will negotiate a comprehensive Host-Community Agreement, which will be evaluated by a special aldermanic committee. The entire City Council will participate in the final recommendation process, then the Illinois Gaming Board will approve or disapprove.

Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim said, “We would like to thank Mayor Lightfoot and her office for conducting a tough, but fair, RFP process and selecting Bally’s Chicago as the final bidder for the city’s casino. Chicago is a unique and vibrant city, deserving of world-class gaming and entertainment destination that is of, by and for the people by driving the local economy, supporting local labor, creating multigenerational wealth for minority investors and showcasing the best of what the city has to offer. We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with Mayor Lightfoot and all of our valued community partners on this exciting endeavor.”

City officials said Bally’s Tribune proposal was chosen because it met or exceeded core goals outlined by the casino selection committee and offered the best financials to the city. Bally’s will make a $40 million payment when the Host-Community Agreement is signed and pay $4 million a year after that. Bally’s also made the highest minimum-capital commitment to the project, and it’s the only finalist without a competing regional casino.

In addition, officials noted Bally’s completed an agreement with organized labor. It will commit to 60 percent minority hiring and establish a jobs program targeting neighborhoods with the highest unemployment and lowest income, including career pathways for upward mobility. Also, Bally’s will create a crowdfunding equity initiative and will invite small local restaurants and businesses to open in the casino.

Alderman Walter Burnett, who represents the 27th Ward, where the casino would be located, said he supports Lightfoot’s choice.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city of Chicago and it will be a premier destination for generations to come,” he said. “Do I want to deal with the casino and deal with all the drama? Well, not necessarily. But I know we have to. I know we have to deal with the pension funds for the firemen and the police.”

Opposing the selection was Alderman Brendan Reilly, who represents the 42nd Ward. He said the Bally’s site makes “no sense” logistically and suggested it received preferential treatment.

“I’m concerned that there’s a select number of people in the mayor’s office dictating the course of this entire discussion, and it sure feels like Bally’s has been given a leg up and that’s not fair,” Reilly said.

He also expressed dissatisfaction with the selection process. “We have a special casino committee at city hall that met once for two hours. We asked a bunch of questions received no answers on the record, and just last night received our answers in writing. And the announcement was made this morning 12 hours later. I think that’s unacceptable,” Reilly said.

Alderman Brian Hopkins of the 2nd Ward voiced concerns about the selection process. He said, “My understanding was we would have the opportunity to evaluate the options and actually vote on it. If Lightfoot is going to usurp that entire process before we’ve completed our work and just making a decision, I wish she would have told us that at the outset.”

Ahead of the announcement, River North Residents Association President Brian Israel stated it would be “very discouraging and disappointing” if Bally’s was announced as the city’s final choice. Israel noted the organization’s ongoing residents’ survey indicated more than 80 percent of the 2,300 respondents said they oppose the Bally’s proposal.

“We were expecting this to get towards the decision-making process in early summer, with many more meetings of the special committee and more opportunities for public input,” he said.

City officials said Bally’s is expected to open a temporary casino at the Medinah Temple, located near major transit and retail/hospitality corridors, sometime in the middle of next year. The permanent casino isn’t expected to open until 2026.

The public can weigh in at a community engagement event hosted by the city from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday, May 12, at UIC Forum, 725 West Roosevelt Road in Chicago.