Chicago’s casino plan moves a step closer to full approval after city council committee nods

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to build a casino in River West came a step closer to realization on Monday when a City Council committee advanced legislation laying the groundwork for the ambitious development, and the final one this week vote sent.

Despite opponents’ warnings that the process was moving too quickly, the casino committee voted 27-3 to send the proposal to the city council, where a vote is likely to take place on Wednesday. If it goes through, Bally’s plan to build a $1.74 billion casino, hotel and entertainment project in River West — on a lot now occupied by the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center Printing Office — will be one received important approval.

In early May, Lightfoot unveiled Bally’s proposed River West location as their choice of three bids for Chicago’s long-awaited casino license. The project must be approved by both the full city council and the Illinois Gaming Board.

Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42, voted no during Monday’s committee hearing, questioning the true amount of the touted $200 million in annual windfall the casino is expected to bring to the city’s coffers.

Those concerns followed earlier arguments by Reilly that the gambling complex will attract crime and congestion and will be fiercely opposed by its River North constituents. Before the committee vote, he conjured up a common refrain in which he compared the city’s 2008 parking meter deal to the casino plan and reinforced his condemnation of the latter.

“This process that we’re going through, this sprint to the finish line and the gymnastics we’re doing today…in a way, it’s actually worse than the process for the parking meter deal,” Reilly said.

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Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, also representing a nearby neighborhood, echoed his colleague’s reservations about the $200 million projected annual revenue: “That’s a promise. That’s all.”

“This is actually worse than the parking meter deal,” said Hopkins, who voted no. “It wasn’t a good deal, but at least we know what we got. … Our hands will be tied in six years, ladies and gentlemen. We will not be able to correct the mistake we are about to make.”

The council member representing the community where the proposed casino is located, Ald. Walter Burnett, 27, responded that “this is a needed opportunity for us”.

“I don’t know what else we can do,” Burnett said. “We have postponed this (committee vote last week). Will we miss the boat?”

Meanwhile, city officials on Monday defended Lightfoot’s decision by saying the process is indeed thorough and must proceed immediately to shore up state finances. The city’s CFO, Jennie Huang Bennett, said the $40 million upfront payment from Bally’s was needed as soon as possible to help cover a potential budget shortfall in the city.

“Time is of the essence,” said Huang Bennett.

Huang Bennett added calculations showing that Chicago loses around $331 million in revenue to Indiana every year that a casino isn’t open.

“This was a three-year process that the city conducted for the selection of the casino in the city of Chicago,” said Huang Bennett. “This is a generational opportunity that the city has been working toward for 30 years.”

The city is banking on the future casino’s projected annual tax revenue of $200 million to plug the public pension funding gap. If approved by the General Council and state gaming officials, Bally’s plans to open a temporary casino — the city says it will be downtown at the Medinah Temple landmark — by Q2 2023, with the permanent casino opening in Q1 scheduled for quarter 2026.

The Medinah Temple Building, a 130,000-square-foot building at 600 N. Wabash Ave., has been vacant for almost two years, according to retail chain Macy’s touched his Bloomingdale shop outside of the website.

Reilly added that the temporary casino site in his community came from a “truncated” selection process that ignored “a million potential locations” in favor of a location strongly opposed by its residents and business owners. Huang Bennett responded that a short-term casino closer to downtown would generate more revenue.

Also on Monday, the expansion of Lightfoot’s curfew for young people stalled Monday in the city council after allies of the mayor delayed a vote on the controversial limit on how long Chicago children can stay out.

Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato, 38, used a parliamentary procedure on Monday to postpone a vote on changing Lightfoot’s curfew to Wednesday’s council meeting, when he expects the legislation to pass without a hitch. Sposato, who supports the curfew change, said support is there but he and others wanted to prevent opponents from delaying the vote themselves.

Lightfoot’s move to increase the curfew from 11pm to 10pm for all days of the week follows a teenager’s fatal shooting at The Bean in Millennium Park earlier this month. It also comes on the heels of the mayor, who signs and imposes an executive order with the same adjustments a separate policy that unaccompanied minors are allowed in Millennium Park on weekends.

The mayor, who is expected to announce her re-election campaign in the coming weeks, has faced a range of questions about how she deals with crime following a spate of high-profile downtown violence, including the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Seadell on May 14 to bypass Holliday near The Bean, allegedly by a 17 years old. Chicago police said the shooting happened during an altercation at a time when large groups of young people had gathered in a downtown park in a chaotic scene.

Lightfoot responded to this outbreak of gun violence by issuing an executive order that imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for minors every day of the week and banned unaccompanied minors from entering Millennium Park after 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Later that week, she introduced the 10pm curfew change, which was postponed on Monday.

Finally, city councilors on Monday approved a $14.25 million settlement from the city for Daniel Taylor, a man who spent two decades behind bars for a 1992 double homicide while he was in police custody. And the city council finalized a $1.9 million settlement for Jose Nieves’ family, who was fatally shot by off-duty Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser during a 2017 dispute on the Northwest Side. Houser was convicted of second-degree murder in the case.

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