Lightfoot Names Three Chicago Casino Finalists

Rejecting two proposals for a casino at McCormick Place, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (l.) last week announced the three finalists for a downtown Chicago casino. The finalists are Neil Bluhm’s Rivers 78 proposal and bids by Hard Rock and Bally’s Corp.

Lightfoot Names Three Chicago Casino Finalists

Last week, in a surprise move, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced three finalists in the competition to own and operate a downtown casino in the Windy City. Earlier Lightfoot had said she would select one winner by the end of March.

The short list includes a proposal from Chicago finance mogul and Rush Street Gaming principal Neil Bluhm for a casino on Related Midwest’s 78 property at Clark Street and Roosevelt Road in the South Loop; Bally’s plan for the Tribune printing plant property on Chicago Avenue, east of Halsted Street; and Hard Rock’s bid to develop a casino as part of the larger One Central project, northwest of Soldier Field.

Two projects that were to be developed at McCormick Place were eliminated from the competition. One plan, also from Bluhm, would have converted the aging Lakeside Center into a casino; another, from Bally’s, would have transformed the truck marshaling yards west of the convention center.

The agency that operates McCormick Place, the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, earlier expressed concerns about disrupting convention business there. Observers suggested the detailed analysis from the mayor’s office may have taken this into consideration, stating, “Losing even one convention due to a casino could have significant adverse impacts on city and state revenues.”

Hard Rock had proposed using McCormick Place’s east building for a temporary facility, but the report stated Hard Rock “will explore other” possible locations.

The city’s report noted, “Bally’s is the only bidder that does not already have a property in the Chicago market, and therefore is more likely to operate with independence in maximizing revenues.” Bluhm’s River 78 conceivably could compete with his Des Plaines casino and Hard Rock with its Indiana venue.

(from top) Rivers 78, Bally’s Chicago, Hard Rock Chicago

Bally’s Corporation’s $1.7 billion proposal at the Tribune includes a 3,000-seat theater; sports museum; Riverwalk extension; pedestrian bridge; 500-room hotel tower; outdoor park; outdoor music venue; large pool, spa, fitness center and sun deck; six restaurants, cafe, and food hall. The casino would offer 3,400 slots and 173 table games. Bally’s officials said the project would create 9,750 construction jobs and 2,002 permanent jobs. Bally’s would open a temporary casino in second quarter 2023 and the permanent location in first quarter 2026.

Bally’s Vice President of Corporate Development Chris Jewett said, “We continue to believe we have the strongest bid and we’re glad to be a finalist. From the beginning we have been site agnostic and intentionally put forward two very different sites in order to allow the city to ultimately decide. Of the three finalists, we believe that the Tribune site is the most attractive and has the highest revenue generation potential for the city.”

Hard Rock’s $1.7 billion ONE Central proposal includes a 3,500-seat Hard Rock Live venue; Hard Rock Music and Entertainment experience; 500-room hotel tower; “Rock” spa; rooftop space; outdoor green space; several restaurants, cafes and food hall, six bars and lounges. The casino would feature 3,000 slots and 166 table games. Hard Rock officials said the project would create 16,607 construction jobs and 3,140 permanent casino jobs. A temporary casino would open in second quarter 2023 and the permanent casino in third quarter 2025.

In a statement, Hard Rock said, “We’re excited about the prospect of creating a new entertainment destination for the city of Chicago, and we’re humbled to be chosen for the next phase of the selection process. We look forward to a robust dialogue with city leaders about Hard Rock Chicago and what we bring to the table. Chicago is a global city that deserves a global operator.”

The Rivers 78 proposal includes a $1.62 billion development including a riverfront plaza; observation tower with indoor and outdoor space; Harbor Hall multipurpose rooftop riverfront venue for live entertainment, culture, arts and community programs; 300-room hotel tower; eight restaurants, cafes, a food hall, five bars and lounges. The casino would offer 2,600 slots and 190 table games. Officials said the project would create 3,410 to 4,375 construction jobs and 3,068 permanent casino jobs. A temporary casino would open in second quarter 2024 and the permanent location in fourth quarter 2025.

A spokesperson said, “We have a strong track record of working closely with the communities surrounding the 78 to build an inclusive destination that benefits all, and we look forward to building on these longstanding partnerships. This development creates a geographical link that previously did not exist among the communities of Chinatown, Pilsen, Little Italy, Bronzeville, Bridgeport, South Loop and the Loop, uniting our city in a single destination where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather in community and enjoy what our city has to offer. The entertainment district at the 78 will belong to all of Chicago.”

The mayor said she plans to hold a series of public hearings, one with each bidder. As a result, city officials said it will be at least “early summer” before a final decision is made in order to allow for “community engagement.” The Illinois Gaming Board will have the ultimate say over the final selection.

Lightfoot said, “We have spent countless hours analyzing each proposal for Chicago’s casino license. Each proposal offers economic, employment and equity focused opportunities for Chicago, while simultaneously enhancing the city’s cultural, entertainment and architectural scenes with world-class amenities and design. Our teams look forward to heading into discussions with the finalists and getting one step closer to bringing this decades-long project to fruition.”

Nevertheless, Lightfoot was accused of “stacking the deck” by “ramming through” an ordinance creating a special city council committee to determine “all matters within the jurisdiction of the city related to the establishment of the casino.” The committee will be led by Zoning Committee Chair Tom Tunney; Black Caucus Chair Jason Ervin will serve as vice-chair.

Lightfoot assured alderpersons that “ample opportunity will be given to every single member of the body to participate.”

She added, “Please, please, please take advantage of the briefings that are gonna be given both by the committee and also by members of my staff who have spent a lot of time going through the numbers.”

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said, “This is not bringing in the light. This is not transparency. This is not good government.”

Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez said, “This seems like a rush job that the mayor is pushing. With chairs and vice-chairs who rarely deviate from the mayor’s decisions, we can expect the mayor to make this choice unilaterally without consultation” of local alderpersons or the advisory committee or community leaders.

Alderwoman Sophia King said, “At the very least” the new committee should include “aldermen whose wards are gonna be directly impacted” by a Chicago casino. “Their constituents need to have a voice,” she said.

Alderman Ray Lopez, the mayor’s most outspoken council critic, called the special committee a “stacked deck and an affront to democracy. This is gonna be the ultimate rubber stamp that will ultimately be parking meters 2.0 if we’re not all involved to ensure Chicago gets the best deal possible.”

Tunney noted that the “30-plus” membership of the committee includes the “vast majority of the City Council.” He said, “I don’t agree with the opinion that the deck is stacked. And I don’t think any alderperson has a pre-conceived notion. Even chairpersons have disagreed with the mayor.”

He added, “The way I run my Zoning Committee is in deference to the interests of the local alderman.”