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Chicago mayor chooses Bally’s for city’s first casino-resort

Getting a casino in Chicago has been a major political goal for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, despite opposition from locals and City Council members.

CHICAGO (CN) — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Thursday morning that she has chosen a winner in the long-running race to build the city's first major casino-resort.

The finalist bid from Bally's Corporation calls for a $1.7 billion complex along the Chicago River at the site of the Tribune Publishing Center, which will include six restaurants, a cinema and an outdoor music venue in addition to the casino and hotel.

Getting a casino in Chicago has been one of Lightfoot's most high-profile goals since she began her mayoral term in 2019. It's a goal only made possible by the 2019 passage of the Illinois Gambling Act through the state legislature. The law legalized dry-land gambling in Illinois, and with Lightfoot's urging state lawmakers also amended it in summer 2020 to significantly lower taxes on dry-land casinos operating in Chicago specifically.

She claims the complex will bring over 3,000 construction jobs to the city, as well as over 3,000 permanent jobs once the casino is opened sometime in 2025 or 2026. Per an agreement Lightfoot says will soon be signed between Bally's and City Hall, she said the company pledged to pay the city $40 million upfront and $4 million per year afterwards.

Lightfoot said Thursday she selected Bally's by looking at "the overall package" of its bid, and that compared to the other finalists, Bally had its "financing tight."

"Following significant analyses and community input on all aspects of our three finalists for Chicago's casino license, the selection committee and I have chosen Bally's to move forward in the development of the city's first integrated casino resort," the mayor said in a statement. "We are confident that Bally's Tribune Publishing Center development will shore up the city's pension funds, create thousands of good-paying jobs, and lead to a bright financial future for our city."

Bally's will self-manage the casino following its opening in several years, and plans to open a temporary casino at the Medinah Temple, a Chicago historical landmark, in the interim. One quarter of the equity in the Bally's project will also be reserved for a matched financing plan, the Bally's Corporation said in a prepared statement on Thursday, so that local investors can claim a stake in the project.

"A hallmark of Bally's Chicago is its innovative Community Investment Program, which reserves 25% of the equity in Bally's Chicago with matched financing that will allow hundreds of local and underrepresented communities of investors to own a piece of 'the Best of Chicago,'" the Bally's statement read.

Lightfoot’s zeal in seeing a casino brought to Chicago has not been without criticism. A 2019 investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times found that she had ties to several wealthy casino operators, including the wealthy Bluhm family. The Bluhms contributed $212,500 to Lightfoot’s 2019 mayoral campaign, and its billionaire patriarch Neil Bluhm chairs Rush Street Gaming, which submitted another of the finalist casino bids. Lightfoot, who said in 2019 that she would not allow the Bluhms to influence her casino decision, did not select Rush Street Gaming's bid.

The other rejected bid came from Hard Rock, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Plans to build a casino in Chicago have also faced opposition from members of City Council as well as from residents living near the proposed casino sites. The Bally's site is located adjacent to River North, one of the city's wealthiest communities with a median household income of over $121,000 per year. In April, a community organization known as the River North Residents Association conducted a survey of River North locals and found that over 80% of respondents "strongly opposed" the casino's construction.

Issues cited by the RNRA as cause for concern included traffic congestion, crime, casino tourist traffic in residential areas, and the driving out of local small businesses.

"The first thing the city said was this casino would be good for the neighborhood," said River North resident and attorney Antonio Romanucci of the law firm Romanucci & Blandin. "The city has given no good answer on how the casino would benefit the neighborhood."

While not opposed to a casino being built elsewhere in Chicago, Romanucci said a casino would only hurt local residents of River North. He echoed the RNRA's concerns, saying he anticipated increased traffic congestion and crime in the area as a result. He said litigation to stop the casino's construction in the neighborhood needed to be "very strongly considered."

"Until they can show us how the neighborhood will benefit, I think litigation has to be considered," Romanucci said.

While Walter Burnett, alderman of the 27th Ward in which the Bally's site and much of River North is located, said Thursday that he was "proud to support" the casino, last month he told reporters with Block Club Chicago that he "actually hope[s] they don’t choose my area."

He did not respond to Courthouse News' request for comment on why he changed his position.

City Council members Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Pat Dowell, whose wards were proposed locations for the two other bids from Rush Street Gaming and Hard Rock, respectively, also told Lightfoot last month that they could not support a casino in their backyards. Sigcho-Lopez especially rankled at the Rivers Casino proposal from Rush Street Gaming, claiming that eight out of 10 residents in his majority-Latino, low-and-middle-income 25th Ward opposed its construction.

Lightfoot dismissed this criticism in April, claiming she expected "some level of NIMBYism" but insisting that the casino would be a driver of revenue and new jobs for the city. The Bally's site did win the support of the leadership of UNITE HERE Local 1, a hospitality workers' union in the city with over 15,000 members. UNITE HERE Local 1 President Karen Kent said Thursday she anticipated the casino will give hundreds of the union's members "a shot at a good job."

"The Chicago casino will create opportunity for hundreds of workers just like me," Local 1 worker Esther Morales said in a press conference on Thursday. "Thank you to Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago City Council for supporting us, and sí se puede."

Now that Lightfoot has made her selection, the Bally's proposal will go before a special aldermanic committee chaired by 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney. The committee will evaluate terms for funding, use and management between Bally's and the city, before the deal goes before the entire City Council for final approval.

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