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City Council approves Bally's plan for River West casino

After intense debate, City Council approves Bally's casino plan
After intense debate, City Council approves Bally's casino plan 01:43

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Aldermen on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot's push for Bally's to build the city's first casino in the River West neighborhood, despite complaints from some critics that the project was rushed through City Council, and that the projected $200 million in annual tax revenue the project is estimated to bring to the city amounts to nothing more than "fuzzy math."

The City Council voted 41-7 to approve Bally's plan to build a casino, hotel, and entertainment complex on the site that is currently home to the Chicago Tribune newsroom and printing plant. The $1.7 billion project now goes to the Illinois Gaming Board for approval of Bally's casino license.

City Council approves plan for Chicago casino 00:26

"It goes without saying that this is a major, major milestone," Lightfoot said at a press conference after the vote.

The mayor said it took "30 years of effort" by Chicago mayors, business leaders, labor unions, and others to pass legislation allowing for a casino in the city, and to choose an operator to build the city's first casino resort.

Critics have accused the Lightfoot administration of ramming the Bally's plan through City Council without properly addressing concerns about how the already congested River West neighborhood will handle the influx of additional traffic, or how the casino might lead to an increase in crime.

But Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who chaired the Special Casino Committee that was formed to review the mayor's casino choice, said he is confident aldermen will be able to work together to address those issues.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "We are going to make this happen. We have to make it happen, and it is going to be a successful temporary and a successful permanent location if we, the elected officials, work with our community on the issues that we talked about." 

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. 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.

"This is more than about gaming, this is about how this enterprise will help enrich the lives of everyday Chicagoans," said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th). "The bottom line of this, this is about revenue. My father would tell me that cars don't run on hopes and prayers. Cars run on gas. So pull your money out when you want to go somewhere. Government and we don't run on hopes and prayers. We have obligations that we need to meet."

Ervin noted that the city has $1 billion in pension obligations next year alone, and that number will only grow in the coming years.

"I understand people have to standup for their communities. But we have to stand up for the whole city," Ervin said.

Bally's was one of three finalists for the casino complex, after a total of five bids were submitted to the city in November. The other two finalists were from Rush Street Gaming, for a Rivers Casino in the new development project known as The 78 near the South Loop and Chinatown; and a Hard Rock proposal to build a casino over train tracks in the proposed One Central development near Soldier Field.

Bally's was the only casino finalist to offer an upfront payment to the city as part of their bid, a $25 million payment to the city. According to the mayor's office, that initial offer has been increased to a $40 million upfront payment, and an annual $4 million payment thereafter.  

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.

Approval of the casino plan came after the Lightfoot administration agreed to some last-minute changes to the casino agreement with Bally's earlier this week, to ensure that the City Council would have to approve any future changes that might be negotiated to the deal, and to make sure that at least 25% of the project will be owned by minority investors within one year.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) called the approval process for the casino "flawed," and infuriated Lightfoot by accusing her administration of being "more worried about campaign contributions than doing the right thing for the City of Chicago."

Lightfoot angrily interrupted Sigcho-Lopez, calling him a "liar."

"I will not tolerate you besmirching the hard work of so many people who have worked on this. You may not agree. 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," Lightfoot shot back. "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."

Critics of the Bally's plan have argued the approval process for the casino is being rushed, and that the City Council should have been given more time to review the plan before voting.

"We need more time to analyze this. We need more time to get the questions fully answered to vet this proposal, and see if we can do better, because I think we can," said Ald. Brian Hopkins, (2nd), whose ward neighbors the 27th Ward, where the permanent casino would be built.

Hopkins said the Bally's bid was "by far" the least desirable of the five original bids for a Chicago casino, and argued Bally's had an unfair advantage, including previous financial ties to Union Gaming, the analyst hired by the city to review the casino bids, as well as to the law firm hired to advise the Lightfoot administration on the casino proposals.

"This is a mistake, and the ramifications of this decision will continue on in the future," Hopkins said.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward also neighbors the permanent casino site, and would host the temporary casino site at Medinah Temple, also has been vehemently opposed to the Bally's plan.

Reilly said his opposition is not simply based on concerns for his ward, but for the city as a whole, echoing Hopkins that aldermen should be given more time to review the Bally's plan before voting.

"The world doesn't blow up tomorrow if we were take a bit more time on this," he added.

In particular, Reilly raised doubts about the estimated $200 million in tax revenue the casino is expected to generate for the city's woefully underfunded police and fire pension systems, calling those estimates "fuzzy math."

"I've done the math on this. It doesn't add up for me," he said.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who chairs the City Council Budget Committee, said she is comfortable with the casino's revenue projections, saying those financial estimates have been reviewed by "six to eight independent industry experts."

Tunney noted that all five casino bids estimated their projects would generate around $200 million a year for the city once they were up and running.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes the proposed permanent Bally's casino, shrugged off concerns about the accuracy of the revenue projections, saying whatever the city gets from the casino is better than seeking another property tax hike instead to shore up the city's pension funds.

"Will we get all of it? Who knows. But guess what? It's better than nothing. It's better than nothing.  It's better than trying to get it from the taxpayers. We have to do something. Yeah, is it going to be risky? For me, it's risky. For me, it's risky, because I have some people who don't want the casino in my neighborhood, but I have to do something," Burnett said. "I have an obligation not only to the residents that I represent, but also to the residents of the city of Chicago, and we have to do something. And guess what, this is money that's not going to cost us anything."

In addition to the expected tax revenue for the city's pensions, the project also is expected to be a boon for the city's economy, by bringing in new tourism revenue, while creating an estimated 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs at the proposed casino resort, which would include the casino, hotel, and more. Bally's has promised 60% minority hiring.

"It's going to be 3,000 good jobs helping families in every neighborhood of the city of Chicago," Tunney said.

Bally's has completed an agreement with the city's labor unions regarding the various casino jobs, which the mayor and aldermen have said would be necessary for the casino project to move forward.

Bally's proposal calls for a $1.74 billion casino at the 30-acre Chicago Tribune Freedom Center publishing plant along the Chicago River near Halsted and Ohio streets.

The Chicago Tribune prints its newspapers – and some competitors' newspapers – at the Freedom Center, but its lease at the site runs out in June 2023, with an option to renew for 10 years. But Bally's also holds an option to purchase the site.

The casino project would include 3,400 slot machines and 173 table games; a 500-room hotel; several locally-owned restaurants and cafés, as well as a food hall; three bars and lounges; a 3,000-seat theater; an extension of the city's Riverwalk, along with a 70,000-square-foot riverfront entertainment venue; 20,000 square feet of exhibition space; a sports museum; and an outdoor/rooftop space with bars, lounges, and pools.

Bally's is also planning on 30 traffic improvement projects. They include adding new traffic signals for entry roads going east from Halsted Street just south of Chicago Avenue, and going south from Chicago Avenue just east of Halsted Street. New signals are also planned for entry roads that run north from Grand Avenue east of Halsted Street.

Also planned is the modernization of traffic signals directly at Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue, and also at Halsted and Erie streets and at Milwaukee Avenue, Ogden Avenue, and Chicago Avenue to the west.

There are also plans for new pedestrian signals at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street; Grand Avenue at Halsted Street, Desplaines Street, and Jefferson Street; and Halsted and Superior streets.

The casino operator is also planning crowdfunding, where Chicagoans can buy fractional ownership of the facility.

The Bally's bid for this site includes a temporary facility at the Medinah Temple in the River North neighborhood. Originally, Bally's had planned that temporary casino at a site adjacent to the Freedom Center by retrofitting an existing building, but city officials said the Medinah Temple was chosen instead due to its proximity to mass transit, and existing retail and hospitality corridors.

According to a city evaluation report, Bally's expects to open the temporary casino at Medinah Temple in the second quarter of 2023, with the permanent casino likely to open by the first quarter of 2026.

Reilly also has vehemently objected to putting the temporary casino in Medinah Temple, and has compared the mayor's overall push for City Council approval of the Bally's casino bid by the end of the month to the infamous sale of the city's parking meters in 2008.

"The last time we were given less than two weeks to vet and approve a deal, it blew up in our faces - and it was called the parking meter deal," he said earlier this month

The parking meter deal came around in December 2008 under Mayor Richard M. Daley. The city leased its parking meters to Chicago Parking Meters LLC in a 75-year deal for about $1.16 billion in a move that has been controversial ever since.

The city says the reason they are pushing this so hard is that after City Hall, the state gaming board still needs to weigh in - and they would like to be able to use those Bally's dollars for next budget year.

As for complaints the approval process has been rushed, Lightfoot has said aldermen have had ample opportunity to weigh in on the casino proposals since they were first unveiled in November, including at community meetings organized for each bid, and multiple closed-door briefings with the mayor's team.

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