Chicago’s fast-track casino is the parking meter business again, Ald. Said as he swear to fight it

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CITYWIDE — Alderpeople called Bally executives and city officials to the mat Monday, asking their colleagues to pump breaks on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s fast-track casino plan.

Aldes. Brendan Reilly (42nd), Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Michele Smith (43rd), whose neighborhoods would neighbor the $1.7 billion River West casino planned for the Tribune Publishing site, all oppose the proposal, have they said at the second special meeting of the city’s casino committee. Monday. Calling on his colleagues to slow down the city’s rushed process, Reilly likened the casino to the much-hated deal to privatize Chicago’s parking meters.

“The last time we were given less than two weeks to review and approve a deal, it blew up in our face and it was called the parking meter deal,” Reilly said during the six-hour meeting.

Hopkins asked Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar about the city’s rushed schedule, asking how it was possible. Lightfoot told reporters on May 3 that the city’s casino evaluation committee had not met, but the committee’s final recommendation was revealed two days later. Mayekar said the evaluation committee met on the evening of May 3 after Lightfoot spoke to reporters.

“I don’t think I could have made that decision in a day,” Hopkins fired back, demanding to know who was on the judging committee. “I don’t think I could have woken up in the morning undecided and come to a conclusion at the end of the day. It seems implausible to me.

Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett denied the decision was made in “one day”, saying the final recommendation is a cumulative of seven months of work. The names of the evaluation committee members will not be released while the city’s vetting process is underway, she said.

Ald, chairman of the casino committee. Tom Tunney (44th) tried to rein in Hopkins, asking him to be “objective and not to be overly judgmental about the charade”.

The Lightfoot administration formally filed a draft casino ordinance on Monday that would pave the way for Bally’s to open a casino at the prime riverside site. It should be approved by the committee by the end of the month and sent to city council for final approval, Bennett said.

Reilly said the fast turnaround time for the order and the anonymity of the casino review board are suspect.

“Now we are told because we are in a [request for proposals process], these are all secret meetings and these are all secret lists of people and we cannot share who made this decision,” Reilly said. “For a deliberative body like the city council, that’s a horrible thing to hear.”

Smith proposed delaying the city council’s casino vote every other month to give aldermen more time to consider the deal. The $40 million in projected casino revenue, which the city wants to allocate to its 2023 budget, can still be included, she argued.

“We make these kinds of changes all the time,” Smith said.

But the city wants the cash “in hand” before the budget cycle and wants to get the ball rolling with the Illinois Gaming Board, which will issue the casino’s final stamp of approval, Bennett said.

Only two aldermen who spoke at the meeting support the casino project: Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose neighborhood includes the River West site that would house Bally’s permanent casino, and Ald. Nicolas Sposato (38th).

“In life, we have to seize a moment,” Burnett said in support of the casino.

RELATED: Most residents say ‘no’ to Bally’s Casino at River West Town Hall, but Alderman says a silent majority back him

Sposato said he fully supports Bally’s proposal because it was not forced down the local alderman’s throat, even though Reilly spoke out against the planned temporary installation for his area. Sposato even encouraged people to buy shares in the company.

“Anyone who wants to buy, Bally’s is under $27 a share. Get it while it’s cheap,” he said.

Credit: Bally’s/SCB
A rendering of Bally’s proposal for a $1.7 billion casino to be built on the Tribune Publishing site at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street.

Temporary casino would make River North a traffic nightmare, says Reilly

Reilly also took issue with the temporary site of Bally’s casino, the Medina Temple, which is in his neighborhood. He said the majority of his residents don’t want a casino there and that would make River North a traffic nightmare.

“[I] I thought it was pretty clear that the temple in Medina was not a good location for a casino,” Reilly said, referring to a letter he sent to the mayor’s office last month.

Reilly challenged city officials, asking if the city had done a formal traffic impact study for the Medina temple site. Officials said no, but plan to do one in the future. Instead, they referred to “high-level analysis” which did not include traffic counts.

There is no on-site parking at the Medina Temple, but there are 3,200 parking spaces within a two-block radius, city officials said.

Bally officials also revealed plans to invest $75 million in 30 projects to improve traffic flow around the casino’s permanent site at the Tribune Freedom Center.

If these kinds of upgrades are needed to do “traffic-like work” at the Tribune site, Reilly asked how the temporary Medina temple site would fare without any upgrades.

Credit: The Bally Company
Bally’s has committed to 30 projects totaling $75 million for off-site improvements around its permanent site at the Tribune Publishing Center. Improvements include the reconstruction and widening of various roads surrounding the potential casino site.

The Medina Temple is within a liquor moratorium zone, which it created in 2017 after “a significant increase in quality of life complaints linked to a number of operating liquor establishments like taverns or nightclubs in River North,” Reilly previously noted. The downtown alderman has sworn not to lift this moratorium to accommodate the temporary casino.

Mayekar said the city would be able to bypass Reilly, citing a loophole that exists across the city for establishments like hotels, restaurants, sports stadiums and casinos.

“I don’t understand why this is forced on everyone,” Reilly said.

Credit: City of Chicago
A riverside view of Bally’s Casino’s proposal for the Tribune Publishing site at River West. The proposal would extend the existing river walk approximately 2,100 feet to connect to the entertainment district.

What made Bally the mayor’s favorite

Bally’s will bring an expected annual revenue of $200 million to the city, most of the three finalists, Bennett said, making him Lightfoot’s eventual frontrunner.

Bally’s was also the only proposal to reach a final working peace agreement with the local unions, Bennett revealed.

Bally’s sweetened its financial deal by increasing its initial payment to the city from $25 million to $40 million, she said. It will also pay the city $4 million a year “in perpetuity,” which Bennett says is “one of the highest fixed casino incentives of any major U.S. city” post-recession.

Compared to the other two finalists, the Hard Rock proposal near Solider Field and Rivers scheduled for 78, Bally’s had more immediate cash that will be allocated to the city’s 2023 budget, according to the city’s recommendation report.

More importantly, the city believes that because Bally’s has no competing facilities in the area, it is in the best position to “aggressively” maximize its revenue.

Here is what is planned:

  • 170 table games.
  • 3,400 pitches.
  • 3,000 seat theatre.
  • Exhibition experience of Immerse agency.
  • Riverwalk extension.
  • Pedestrian bridge.
  • Hotel with 500 rooms.
  • Outdoor park of 2 hectares.
  • Outdoor music room.
  • Pleasure terrace with a pool spa, fitness center and sun terrace.
  • Six restaurants, cafes and a food hall.

The project is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs per year and 3,000 permanent casino jobs, according to the mayor’s office.

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