CHICAGO (CBS) — To become a reality, Chicago’s proposed casino needs the approval of the city council.
On Monday, a City Council special committee on the casino asked questions on topics ranging from crime to traffic to ethics to prospective operator Bally’s and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s team, which selected Bally’s last week.
As CBS 2’s Chris Tye reported, the city did not conduct a new safety study to determine how a casino would affect crime, hoping to get it up and running quickly. Some on the City Council feel it’s too fast for something this big.
“I have to be honest with you all: I thought this would be the last one, but things work in mysterious ways”, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27) said in the Zoom meeting.
And things are working – fast.
The city wants a temporary casino in the historic Medinah Temple at 600 N. Wabash Ave. in River North next year, so they can quickly spend Bally’s $40 million in up-front dollars.
A permanent casino will then be built on the publishing floor of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street on River West, no later than 2026.
The casino’s revenue is money that the city urgently needs to pay the pensions of the police and firefighters.
But Aldo. Brendan Reilly (42nd) says it’s all happening too fast, and has questions about the company the city chose that ultimately led the mayor to endorse Bally’s.
“Union Gaming was contracted to provide us with projections; financial analysis,” Reilly asked the officials. “Who checked your homework?”
“Ultimately, Union Gaming Analytics, which provides us with our revenue forecasts, has worked with all three bidders in the past,” said Jennie Bennett, chief financial officer for the city. “It’s a very small market niche.”
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) also raised reservations about how fast everything is going.
“What is the deadline here and why the rush, on this very important project?” Smith asked Bennett.
“The faster we get to this, the faster we can get to revenue,” Bennett replied.
Questions are also brewing in particular about how the Medinah Temple was selected as the site for a temporary casino. The former auditorium and circus venue was built by the Shriners fraternal organization in 1912 and housed a Bloomingdales furniture store from 2003 to 2020. It has been empty ever since, and the city says filling the empty space is a priority.
“It’s hard to be a retailer in cities because of so many trends and the pandemic made it hard,” Chicago Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar said. “Vacancy begets vacancy, and we must activate the Medinah Temple.”
As residents of the site raised concerns about property values, Bally’s on Monday announced partnerships with The Second City for entertainment and with West Loop restaurants The Publican and Avec for dining at the $1.7 billion project.
Bally’s is also planning 30 traffic improvement projects. They include adding new traffic signals for driveways going east from Halsted Street, just south of Chicago Avenue, and south from Chicago Avenue, just east of Halsted Street. New signs are also planned for driveways running north from Grand Avenue to east of Halsted Street.
Modernization of traffic signals directly on Halsted Street and Chicago Avenue, as well as on Halsted and Erie streets and on Milwaukee Avenue, Ogden Avenue and Chicago Avenue to the west, is also planned.
There are also plans for new pedestrian signals on 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.
“We’re committing the full faith and credit of our corporation. People can walk by and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a piece of that,’ in denominations as low as $250,” Bally’s chairman of the board, Soohyung Kim, said. in the Zoom meeting. “We’re converting this to a security, so it will be a registered security with the SEC.”
Some City Council members said they expected to be ready to vote on the casino plan in the next two weeks. But Reilly re-emphasized that he believes the small pieces of a billion-dollar project are moving too fast.
“The last time we were given less than two weeks to review and approve a deal, it blew up in our faces, and it was called the parking meter deal,” he said.
The meter deal came about in December 2008 under the chairmanship of 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’re pushing this so hard is that after City Hall, the state gaming board has yet to weigh in, and they’d like to be able to use those Bally’s dollars for the next budget year.