In a town hall meeting about the proposed Bally’s Chicago casino site Thursday night, during which the city limited public questions to 90 seconds each, River North residents got small one small concession from Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim: The company won’t build a proposed footbridge that would connect a neighborhood park and playground to the company’s proposed casino.
But given the tenor of the meeting, that one, small bridge may not be enough to convince neighborhood residents to support the project, which will include a 500-room hotel tower, a 2,100-foot expansion of the neighborhood’s riverwalk, a 3,000-seat theater, an outdoor music venue, and multiple restaurants and retail options.
The meeting on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus stretched nearly three hours and was the second on the issue since Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week announced the selection of the Bally’s-Tribune Building proposal by her office late last week. The Special Committee on the Chicago Casino held a meeting for aldermen on Monday. The choice must still be approved by the City Council, which is scheduled to meet May 23. If the City Council approves the choice, the proposal will then head to the Illinois Gaming Board, which has the final say on issuing a license.
The packed meeting had its share of contentious moments, but in the end served mostly as a forum for neighborhood residents to state their opposition to a casino being built on the site of the Chicago Tribune printing building. Some residents were angered when their microphones were cut off after 90 seconds, them leaving shouting questions. And the meeting moderator repeatedly chastised the public for “heckling” and told one group, “We are trying to answer your questions, and you are trying to disrupt.”
Of the approximately 40 questions asked, more than half came from neighborhood residents who essentially said that a casino does not belong in a long-established neighborhood that believes it won’t benefit from having a billion-dollar entertainment center built next door.
“I like to visit you in Las Vegas, not in my backyard,” said one resident who also operates multiple restaurants in Chicago and questioned the wisdom of bringing more hospitality into a city in which local businesses are already struggling to find and retain help.
“This casino does not belong in an older, established community,” another resident said. “We have lived there for a long time and made it a neighborhood. We would prefer high rises. It doesn’t fit.”
Frustration bubbles over
Kim, Bally’s major investor, alternately appeared to listen and get frustrated by residents questioning how his proposed casino would change Chicago’s River West neighborhood. Lightfoot — who did not attend the meeting but addressed attendees via video link — has heard mixed reviews since choosing the Bally’s proposal over ones submitted by locally based Hard Rock and Rush Street Gaming. Bally’s initially submitted two proposals, but the other was cut when the field was narrowed from five to three.
The project “puts us further on the path I put us on the first day I took office … to make our city financially sound,” Lightfoot said of the project, which will help to fund city pensions. Throughout the meeting, the mantra from city officials was that Chicago needs more revenue and that casino taxes are a better alternative to raising property taxes.
“Annually, the state of Illinois sends $331 million to the state of Indiana,” City of Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said at the start of the meeting. “That revenue belongs here in Chicago. That revenue … will allow the city not to raise taxes, including property taxes, which is really the only way to raise that amount of money for our pension problem. It’s critical to the city’s financial stability.”
As part of the project, which will cost Bally’s $1.7 billion, the company will pay the city a $40-million one-time fee and $4 million per year in perpetuity for “community benefits.” In addition, the project is projected to bring in as much a $245 million in tax revenue by FY 2028. Gaming could begin in Chicago within a year of approval at a temporary site at the Medinah Temple complex while the permanent site is being built out.
While myriad residents said they don’t favor having a casino in their neighborhood, Kim repeatedly said that he didn’t feel that people “understood” what a casino really is.
“I just think people have a different perception of what a casino is. If we could just show something,” Kim said, and a video began to play, but the meeting moderator immediately cut it off. “I just don’t think you understand what a casino is.”
Kim went on to explain that his company initially proposed a low-slung building rather than the 37-floor glitzy high rise that Lightfoot chose, but said the city pushed back on the lower-profile idea. He also suggested that the “best thing” to do at a casino was to enjoy the food and entertainment. At the end of the meeting, he was allowed to screen video that showed footage of the company’s Lincoln casino. In watching the video, it was hard to tell where the casino began and the surrounding neighborhood ended, supporting his point that such a venue can blend with any landscape.
‘We won’t let the city down’
Besides hearing from residents, multiple responsible gaming advocates asked for guarantees that Bally’s would address the issues that go hand-in-hand with gambling, and one asked that the company keep ATMs off the casino floor. Other groups voiced concern about increased crime and safety issues, noise, and the minority hiring. Bally’s and city representatives said that the increased traffic brought by an entertainment complex would “put more eyes on the street” and help to reduce crime while also sharing that Bally’s would be required to develop a security plan not only for the inside, but also the outside of its complex.
The main theme of many commenters Thursday night was “Casinos simply do not belong in residential areas, period.” https://t.co/p8eUSVr9j9
— Darcel (@DarcelTribune) May 13, 2022
According to a spokesman for the River North Residents Association, a survey of respondents from its group showed that 86% oppose the casino.
Kim reminded Chicagoans that his company started in Chicago, and this project is a chance to bring the brand home again. He promised to continue to listen and work in partnership with the community as the project moves forward.
“You can be assured that we are here to listen and we will continue to refine our plans,” Kim said. “We do plan to succeed, but it’s not done until the City Council ratifies the decision. We won’t let the city down.”