Chicago casino proposals narrowed to 3: Bally’s, Hard Rock, Rivers

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot is now choosing from three remaining finalists to run the Chicago casino. A final decision now isn’t expected until early summer.

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Chicago’s drawn-out casino sweepstakes is down to three-of-a-kind, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday passed on a pair of proposals tied to McCormick Place — and extended her selection process by at least a few months. 

City officials announced they’ve narrowed the field of five bids for the coveted megacasino down to three development pitches: a Bally’s casino slated for the River West site where a Chicago Tribune printing plant is now located; a Hard Rock casino at the proposed One Central project site over the Metra tracks near Soldier Field; and the so-called “Rivers 78” site in the South Loop.

But while the mayor had previously said she wanted to pick one finalist by the end of March to recommend to state regulators who have the final say on issuing a casino license, officials now say that decision won’t be made at least until early summer.

Jennie Huang Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer, said the lengthy process — now approaching three years since state legislators paved the way for a Chicago casino — comes down to getting more community input. 

“If we had selected one site without having had further engagement within the community then, I think that would have been very difficult for us to hold to the values of transparency and community engagement that we do with every major development,” Bennett said. 

Eliminated from consideration were a separate proposal from Bally’s that had eyed the McCormick Place truck marshaling yards south of the convention center, and another that sought to overhaul the convention center’s aging, sparsely used Lakeside Center. That bid was backed by billionaire casino magnate Neil Bluhm, who remains in contention with the 78 proposal. 

Each of the McCormick Place bids faced stiff headwinds from other city officials, including Ald. Sophia King (4th), who has long vehemently opposed any casino development near her Bronzeville ward. And leaders at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which manages McCormick Place, noted that either proposal could cost the city millions in convention business. 

In a statement, Lightfoot said the three remaining finalists “best fit the core goals we want to achieve for the City’s first integrated casino-resort.”

Chief among those is generating cash for Chicago’s depleted police and firefighter pension funds, which are where the city’s cut of casino tax revenue will go. 

The city estimates the Bally’s Tribune site would deliver $176.9 million or $191.7 million to city coffers each year, depending on how big of a hotel they’d build. Their nearly $1.8 billion plan at 777 W. Chicago Ave. calls for 2,700 slots, 95 table games, a “Second City” club and a Chicago sports museum. 

The Bally’s proposal for a casino at the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing site, 777 W. Chicago Ave.

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The Hard Rock site would crank out an estimated $185.3 million for the city annually. Their $1.7 billion plan includes a hotel and live music venue — and could come to fruition even in the absence of more than $6 billion in state funding that developer Bob Dunn is seeking for the rest of the ambitious One Central project. 

A rendering of a Hard Rock casino on the One Central development site near Soldier Field.

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City revenue estimates for the Rivers 78 site on the vacant land south of Roosevelt Road and west of Clark Street start at $146.5 million annually, or up to $174.2 million if developers include the massive hotel and 1,000-foot observation tower that Related Midwest president Curt Bailey has sold as “an Eiffel Tower for Chicago.” The project would include about $1.7 billion in investments. 

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Rivers 78 casino.

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As for the axed proposals, the city estimated it would get just $156.2 million yearly from Bally’s McCormick proposal, or $160.3 from the Lakeside Center. Bennett said those projections “weren’t sufficient to cover” costs of expanding McCormick Place elsewhere to keep it viable for convention business. 

“As we look at the magnitude of what MPEA would need to do in order to design, build and construct that, it creates some execution risk for the city and our ability to get a casino in place as quickly as possible,” she said. 

The remaining finalists have each faced some criticism from neighborhood groups citing environmental concerns, traffic headaches and studies that show crime often spikes in areas surrounding casinos. 

Those issues and more are sure to surface at public meetings scheduled for next month, which will also be streamed online starting at 6 p.m. each day. 

The Hard Rock proposal will be discussed April 5 at Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St.

The Bally’s proposal will be discussed April 6 at the Tribune plant, 700 W. Chicago Ave.

The Rivers 78 proposal will be discussed April 7 at UIC’s Dorin Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road.

The city will negotiate with each of the finalists and then pick one to present for City Council approval. 

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March 22, 2022 at 01:18PM

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