Don’t Rush Bally’s River West Casino Deal, City Officials Warn

City officials were questioned Monday about the decision to back Bally’s proposal for a River West casino and accused of trying to impose an ordinance without enough time to consider a monumental impact on city revenue.

The comments came during the second meeting of a special City Council committee that had apparently been appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to make all decisions about the Chicago casino, a committee some council members now accuse the mayor of skirting.

“I just wanted to warn our fellow freshmen and sophomores on the council that 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,” Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who opposes the River West site, said at the hearing.

“The idea that we’re going to vote on the legislation in about a week and we just received a copy of the proposed legislation this afternoon and we have all these pending questions, that really worries me.”

The harsh line of questioning came during a special committee hearing on the issue (meaning no vote would be taken). At the hearing, city officials made their case to support Bally’s plans to build a $1.7 billion casino-resort facility along the Chicago River.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (second) questioned the city’s timetable when he decided to back Bally’s, saying they were “predetermined to be the winners of this charade.”

While Bally’s permanent casino site is not in the Reilly neighborhood, the mayor’s preferred site for a temporary casino, the Medinah Temple, is. Choosing the city’s landmark to host games while Bally’s builds its new home was another point of contention.

The Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Ave., is where Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed putting up a temporary casino.

The Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Ave., is where Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed putting up a temporary casino while Bally’s builds the permanent house on River West. But the temple is in District 42, represented by Ald. Brendan Reilly, and opposes the idea.

Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar said several variables were taken into account in choosing Medinah, including numerous structural evaluations and how quickly it can start generating revenue. The goal is to get the temporary casino up and running by 2023.

“In addition, there are a number of stakeholders who have very consistently raised the need for an economic recovery,” Mayekar said.

But Reilly disagreed, saying he and his constituents were broadly opposed to a temporary casino in his district.

When the temple was first among the possible sites suggested for a temporary casino, “you got a strong negative reaction, not only from the neighbors but also from the local councilman, which is me,” Reilly said. “This seemed to go away, and from what I understand, the president of Bally’s, by his own admission, said this isn’t his favorite place either.”

Reilly doubled. If he, the residents and the casino operator oppose the temporary casino site, he asked, how can the city override them all?

Mayekar responded by saying that Bally’s is excited about the historic site and the fact that it is currently empty, unlike other potential locations that not only have tenants but are also struggling to get a deal done.

“You have to get both parties to agree to a marriage,” Mayekar said. “And in a lot of these other places, there was no agreement.”

An artist's rendering of the proposed Bally's casino in River West.

An artist’s rendering of Bally’s proposed River West casino complex, which would also have a hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, an extension of the Riverwalk, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants, and a terrace with a large whirlpool .

Reilly also criticized the city for not conducting traffic impact reports on how a Medinah Temple casino will affect commuters, given that Bally’s has said it will need to invest $75 million in traffic infrastructure to alleviate congestion at the permanent location.

“I am not satisfied with many of the answers I got to our questions today. I hope my colleagues aren’t,” Reilly said. “We are being told that if we don’t pass this soon, we will have no choice but to raise property taxes, [but] we’ve been getting this kind of trickle of information from the administration. … We are being asked to review something that is literally being changed as we go along.”

At the beginning of the meeting, a new casino bylaw was emailed to committee members. Ald. Thomas Tunney (44th), chairman of the special committee, said the proposal should be a “benchmark” during the hearing, but no copy was made available to the public at the start of the hearing.

The development will displace the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing facility. Bally’s proposes not only a casino, but also a hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, an extension of the Riverwalk, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants and a terrace with a large whirlpool.

That permanent location is in Ald. Walter Burnett District 27. He has been unwavering in his support for the project, saying it will benefit the community, create good-paying union jobs, improve safety and boost the local economy.

A public meeting on the proposed site is scheduled for Thursday at 7 pm at the UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road.

Soohyung Kim, president of Bally's, the company's city officials have chosen to operate a Chicago casino on River West.

Soohyung Kim, president of Bally’s, in the announcement last week that his company is the city’s pick for a casino license.

File Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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