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Chicago City Council gives final approval for $1.7 billion casino

The controversial proposal from Bally's Corporation passed through City Hall following intense debate on the council floor.

CHICAGO (CN) — After years of maneuvering, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is finally getting her casino.

The controversial proposal from Bally's Corporation to build a $1.7 billion casino-resort on the the Chicago River - and a temporary casino to be housed in the Medinah Temple, a Chicago historical landmark building - passed through a final City Council vote of 41-7 on Wednesday.

It's a vote Lightfoot has been working towards since 2019. Getting a casino in Chicago has been one of her top goals during her mayoral tenure, and closing the deal is a major political victory as the city prepares for its February 2023 mayoral election.

Most importantly for Lightfoot, Bally's agreement with the city includes a $40 million advance payment commitment. The money will help keep the police and fire pension funds afloat, allowing the mayor to possibly avoid a property tax hike in the 2023 budget just before the election. To that end, the approval process for the casino has moved at a breakneck pace since the beginning of May, when Lightfoot chose Bally's proposal from a pool of three finalist bids.

Wednesday's affirmative vote followed a 27-3 approval on Monday by the City Council's special casino committee - a panel whose chairs were hand-picked by Lightfoot.

The effort by Lightfoot and her allies to green-light the casino was buoyed by support from the city's influential hospitality workers' union, which is expecting the casino to provide about 3,000 permanent jobs for its members. But it was also fiercely criticized by Lightfoot's opponents in City Hall as an unprecedented effort to ram through a corporate development deal, one whose benefits to the city at large are still hypothetical.

The controversy came to a head on the council floor on Wednesday in a shouting match between Lightfoot and Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, one of her fiercest critics from the left.

"It is a shame what we continue to see from this administration, the lack of process on the casino... you are an incompetent mayor," Sigcho-Lopez told Lightfoot before Wednesday's vote.

Sigcho-Lopez also criticized the fact that the same law firm which advises Lightfoot on the Bally's deal - Taft Stettinius & Hollister - is the law firm of record for Bally's Quad Cities Casino in Rock Island, Illinois. He called this a conflict of interest meant to benefit Bally's, Taft and Lightfoot over the city as a whole.

Taft responded to the accusation by saying that the attorneys working for Lightfoot's office are not the same advising the Quad Cities Casino.

"In its representation of the city in its RFP [request for proposal] process, the attorneys working on the city team did not work on the Bally’s Quad Cities matter," A Taft representative said in an email. "Lawyers that worked on the Bally's Quad Cities transaction did not work on the city of Chicago transaction and were a part of the group that does not work on government engagements."

That is not how Sigcho-Lopez saw it, further accusing Lightfoot of putting her own campaign ambitions above the city's well-being.

“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,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

"You are a liar sir, and you are out of order... I will not sit here silently while you besmirch my reputation and the people that work for me," Lightfoot responded, following several rounds of increasingly animated shouting between the two.

Sigcho-Lopez represents one of the city wards initially proposed as a casino site. A mixed-income, majority-Latino ward, it is also one of the areas in the city most affected by displacement and predatory development. Both are issues that hang over the casino deal. He was joined in his criticism - though not as pointedly - by several other aldermen, including Brendan Reilly and Brian Hopkins.

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The pair's wealthy, majority-white wards border the final site on the river where Bally's is set to break ground, and a recent community survey in the area found that over 80% of residents opposed its construction. Like Sigcho-Lopez, Reilly and Hopkins characterized the process by which the casino won its approval as one-sided; controlled by Lightfoot's administration rather than by the City Council.

They also said the process was moving too fast, leaving many questions unanswered and potential problems unaddressed.

"I urge my colleagues not to make this mistake. We need more time to analyze this proposal," Hopkins said.

Some councilmembers who supported the casino, such as Alderwomen Jeannette Taylor and Maria Hadden, voiced similar concerns despite their support.

"I'm voting yes but it's with trepidation... Unheard of to have a meeting schedule like we had on Monday," Hadden said. "And then to ask 'why this deadline and why now', and other than being told 'we want to finish this so we can get on to budget [planning],' like, I get the pragmatic pieces but I'm just saying, we deserve more consideration."

Alternatively, more fervent supporters of the casino, such as Deputy Mayor Tom Tunney, pointed out that the city has been attempting to land a casino deal for several decades. Other large global cities such as London and New York City have casinos to bolster their budgets, Tunney said, and so should Chicago.

"We in the city have been working on a potential casino for many, many years." Tunney said. "It is time, from a process point, to just get this in front of the council in a transparent and in a competitive way."

Tunney's support was echoed by Alderman George Cardenas, who said no one should be surprised that a casino was coming given the amount of time and effort that has gone into the deal. He also brushed off the critics arguing that there were too many unknowns in the casino deal as "pessimists,", saying any large project would have its challenges.

"Everyone in this council should not be surprised that this is coming to a head today, right now. You knew a Chicago casino was going to happen. It went to Springfield, it came back, it went back again, they fixed it... this is it. Either you're an optimist or a pessimist," Cardenas said.

Alderman Ray Lopez, who is challenging Lightfoot in the 2023 mayoral election, countered that claim. Along with Reilly, he said the math on the casino's projected profits just didn't add up. Reilly, during his remarks, alluded to Chicago's universally reviled 2008 parking meter privatization deal as an example of the city taking short-term gains only to see a long-term loss. Lopez echoed that he doubted that the casino would be able to generate the annual $200 million in tax revenue the city hoped Bally's casino would generate.

"One Chicago casino apparently is going to make over $200 million, when in 2021 all 11 casinos [in Illinois] generated $248.7 million in casino gaming [tax] revenue," Lopez said. "Eleven casinos created $248.7 million, but yet Chicago's is going to do that in one year?"

The criticism did not sway the majority of the council body. Lightfoot's administration has a history of not bringing votes to the council floor, or delaying them, if they don't believe they will succeed, and the proposal's overwhelming committee victory on Monday foreshadowed its success.

After the bill passed, Lightfoot took her own victory lap, thanking labor leaders and other allies for their support.

"The city of Chicago will get a casino after 30 years of futility," the mayor said.

Bally's casino is expected to open sometime in 2025 or 2026. The temporary casino at the Medinah Temple is expected to open in 2023.

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