Overruling Critics, Chicago City Council OKs Bally’s Casino Proposal

On May 25, by a 41-7 vote, Chicago aldermen approved Bally’s $1.7 billion casino-resort proposal, but not before Mayor Lori Lightfoot (l.) faced fiery criticism over the process and her choice of operator. The Illinois Gaming Board will have final say on the development.

Chicago’s city council voted 41-7 to approve Bally’s proposal for a $1.7 billion casino-resort at the Tribune Publishing site in River West/ But the vote was preceded by a combative meeting and verbal fisticuffs between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and aldermen.

On May 4, Lightfoot announced her selection of Bally’s over Hard Rock and Rush Street Gaming after creating a special council committee to review “all things” related to the casino. But critics said the committee rarely met and lacked proper time to perform due diligence on the three competitors before Lightfoot picked Bally’s. Now the Illinois Gaming Board must sign off on the project.

Lightfoot’s office said Bally’s revenue estimates were slightly higher than the other two, with a shorter anticipated turnaround time. Analysts project the casino will generate $200 million in tax revenue by its second year of operations to offset the city’s police and fire pension debt; the resort is expected to open in late 2025 or early 2026. A temporary casino at the Medinah Temple, expected to open in summer 2023, is projected to produce $55 million in tax revenue, city officials said.

Observers added Lightfoot likely chose Bally’s since it committed to provide an upfront payment of $40 million to the city and $4 million in annual payments after that. In addition, Bally’s was first to make a deal with labor unions, and the Rhode Island-based company had no competing casinos in the area, officials said.

The deal has been loudly criticized by neighbors and aldermen. Residents expressed concerns over traffic congestion, crime and social problems. But the most intense opposition came from city council members.

Second Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins said the 64-page agreement between Bally’s “has so many holes in it, Swiss cheese would be jealous.” He said Bally’s had an “unfair advantage” and the company’s bid was “by far the least desirable” of the three finalists.

“This is a mistake and the ramifications of this mistake will continue on into the future,” Hopkins said.

Forty-Second Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly argued, “This has gone far too quickly at a breakneck speed. All of us have been put in this pressure-cooker artificially.”

He said the casino must perform “on super steroids” to generate the $200 million in annual revenue Bally’s has promised by 2027. Reilly added, “The funding allocation for security for the permanent and temporary sites is totally insufficient. Whomever came up with those numbers pulled them out of thin air. Why? Because a public safety assessment was never prepared for either location, there are no legitimate estimates for what it will truly cost to secure these locations.”

Reilly also blasted Lightfoot’s last-minute “switcheroo” of the temporary casino to Medinah Temple, which would be exempt from the liquor ban on that block. He argued the move will lead to an increase in River North crime and that the already congested area won’t be able to handle more traffic. Reilly said, “That’s a big deal. When the nightclubs shut down, that’s when all of the nonsense starts.”

But the biggest fireworks prior to the vote took place during a screaming match between Lightfoot and 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez.

“I know Mayor Lightfoot does not want to hear the facts, and it’s convenient to ignore the facts,” he stated. “I think as legislators we have the responsibility to review this process, a failed process, in an administration that is more worried about campaign contributions than doing the right thing for the city of Chicago.”

Lightfoot shouted back, “You are a liar. You are a liar, sir. And you are out of order. I will not tolerate you besmirching the hard work of so many people who have worked on this. You may not agree. Then vote no. But I will not sit here silently while you besmirch my reputation and the people that work for me from your pettiness and the things that you’re trying to do that expose this city to liability, sir. You can express your comments and your views. But you will not tear down the integrity of people who are working just as hard as you are. That is absolutely unacceptable.”

At a post-vote press conference, Lightfoot called the casino a “major, major milestone for our city. I’m not patting myself on the back. I’m not doing a victory lap. What I’m saying is that, after 30 years of futility, the men and women of this city will have good-paying jobs that they can build a future on. What I’m also saying is that the taxpayers of this city will not have to be called upon again to shore up our police and fire pensions.”

Soo Hyung Kim, chairman of Rhode Island-based Bally’s, said the venue will showcase “authentic” Chicago.

“We understand what a responsibility it really is and how many promises it allows the city of Chicago to keep to its police and firemen, to the hard-hit workers in the in the trades,” he said. “All of the underrepresented groups of black and brown people that have missed out on economic prosperity. We know all of these promises for all of these opportunities that can be shared with all these groups, and this casino allows for all of it.”

The project will include a gaming floor with 3,400 slots and 173 table games, 500-room hotel, 3,000-seat entertainment center, 1,000-seat outdoor music venue, six restaurants, food hall, three bars, fitness center, sun deck and pool spa, sportsbook and exhibition space including a Chicago sports museum. Bally’s officials said the facility will create 3,000 permanent jobs, including 60 percent minorities. The company also will invest $75 million in infrastructure improvements around the casino site, including synchronized traffic signals and road widening.