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Bally's casino plan clears final city hurdle, awaits Illinois Gaming Board's license approval

Bally's casino plan clears final city hurdle
Bally's casino plan clears final city hurdle 00:23

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Bally's plans for a $1.7 billion casino in River West won final City Council approval on Wednesday, and the project now needs to clear one final hurdle, obtaining a license from the Illinois Gaming Board.

The City Council voted 39-5 on Wednesday to approve the zoning changes Bally's needs to build its casino, hotel, and entertainment complex at the site of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center printing plant along the Chicago River near Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue.

The project will include a casino, hotel, multiple restaurants, an event center, a theater, condos and apartments, retail space, and a new public park. The project is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs.

Rendering of Bally's Corporation's proposed casino complex in the River West neighborhood. Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward will be home to the casino, said it is a "big deal, because it can change the face of that community because of these opportunities."

City officials have said the casino ultimately will generate $200 million a year in tax revenue for the city, which will go towards the city's woefully underfunded police and fire pension systems. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her allies have said, without the casino revenue, the city would be forced to seek a major property tax increase to shore up those pension funds.

Burnett noted that Chicago mayors have been trying to bring the city its first casino since the days of Richard M. Daley, and thanked Lightfoot for ushering the Bally's plan through the City Council.

"This is something that three administrations have been trying to do," he said. "Three administrations, for over 30 years, have been trying to do it. This mayor got it done."

Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications

Despite the overwhelming vote of support from the City Council, the Bally's casino plan has not been without controversy. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose wards both neighbor the casino site, have been vehemently opposed to the Bally's plan since Lightfoot picked them as the winning bidder.

Reilly has repeatedly blasted the mayor's selection process, noting she crated a special City Council committee to consider the casino bids, only to choose Bally's from among a list of three finalists without seeking any formal recommendations from the committee.

Rather than holding a series of hearings to vet each of the finalists, the committee was only asked to sign off on the mayor's choice.

"Many of us had expected the committee process to be where all the vetting would occur," Reilly said. "I'm really disappointed that that part of the process failed."

Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications

Reilly and Hopkins have repeatedly warned that Bally's casino plan will exacerbate traffic problems downtown, and bring an increase in crime. They also have questioned whether the casino will be able to generate the kind of money Lightfoot and Bally's have claimed.

"People in this room raised these red flags now, and I hope to God they don't come true," Reilly said.

Hopkins has argued the Bally's team doesn't have any experience operating a casino in a city as large as Chicago, and that has no background whatsoever in actually building casinos since it has purchased all of its other gambling operations, rather than built them itself.

"We're hitching our wagon to an unexperienced horse, and that is a problem," Hopkins said.

Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications

Hopkins also has noted Bally's has reported $3.4 billion in debt, questioning whether the company can even finance the casino project.

Bally's executives, however, have pointed to a sale-leaseback agreement on the land where it plans to build, which will bring in up to $500 million to help finance the casino. The company also has up to $500 million more from a line of credit, and can raise another $635 million from sale-leaseback deals on the land for other casinos it operates.

Bally's plans to open a temporary casino in the landmark Medinah Temple building in River North in the second quarter of 2023, with the permanent casino in River West expected to open in the first quarter of 2026. 

But first, it is still awaiting Illinois Gaming Board approval of its application for a casino license.

Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications
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