The Illinois Gaming Board unanimously voted Bally’s “preliminarily suitable” at its Thursday meeting, a key step forward for the gaming company to build its $1.7 billion casino in the River West neighborhood of Chicago.
The favorable vote was expected after the IGB had approved smaller related measures, including supplier contracts, as Bally’s has been readying its temporary casino at Medinah Temple in nearby River North. The IGB’s preliminarily suitable finding allows Bally’s to begin moving gaming equipment into the temporary venue, which will have 750 slots and 50 table games in a 134,000-square-foot space.
Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim made the opening remarks of his company’s presentation to the gaming board and hopes Medinah Temple will be open to the public by late August or early September. In order for the IGB to issue a temporary operating permit to conduct betting, Bally’s will have to successfully conduct a multiple-day test to the state agency’s satisfaction.
“We asked the city to bet on Bally’s and we’re here like every good casino, paying off our winning bets and keeping our promises,” Kim said shortly after the IGB vote. “I think when people look at the Medinah Temple, they’ll be floored. … It’s a really nice execution.
“I think we’re targeting six or eight weeks [to open], but that is just really a function of how quickly the IGB can keep up with us. We want to move as quickly as we can. But we’re totally mindful that it’s a big deal.”
The IGB moving Bally’s forward in Chicago was one of a flurry of online casino regulation and sports wagering approvals by the state agency Thursday in which both Hard Rock and Full House Resorts were granted extensions to operate their temporary casinos while construction on permanent ones continue, and Bally’s other Illinois-based property in Quad Cities was granted a four-year casino license renewal.
A long road but still some miles left
Bally’s submitted its application to the IGB last August after then-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tabbed the gaming company the city’s preferred operator in May 2022. The Chicago City Council approved Bally’s in relatively rapid fashion later that month, and the proposal cleared key city hurdles in December with approvals of the Planning Commission and Zoning Committee.
While River West residents voiced opposition during and after the selection process, Kim thinks the finished product at Medinah Temple will begin the process of bringing folks around to perhaps form a favorable view of the permanent casino.
“What we’re going to say is that you should really come by Medinah and judge for yourself,” he said. “I think the team has done a great job. Our new associates are just so excited about their work, and I think people will be impressed.”
One area that remains unsettled is how Bally’s will arrive at its pledged state-mandated 25% minority ownership. It submitted a draft registration S-1 Form to the Securities and Exchange Commission last month in which qualifying Chicago residents would be offered initial public ownerships with an investment of $250. Kim said the SEC’s review process is ongoing, but he suggested this method was the best way to go about securing that minority ownership.
“We could have gone out and found it a couple of very wealthy folks, you know, like athletes, and we have our share of interest from from those communities,” said Kim, “but I don’t think that’s why the law was written. … It wasn’t to make rich people richer.
“And so what we wanted to do is embrace the spirit of the law, which is really to share economic opportunity with the community as a whole. And so what we did is put together this investment program that would allow us to essentially really divide the pieces even smaller … so that people can put in investment checks as low as $250.”
Kim reiterated Bally’s goal of making the River West casino “its flagship.” The city has projected $200 million in annual tax revenue at full maturity, with that revenue earmarked for the city’s underfunded police and fire pensions.
Hard Rock and Full House get ‘good cause’ extensions
To the north of Chicago, Rockford and Waukegan were also granted new casino licenses among the six created in the 2019 gaming expansion bill Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law. Hard Rock was the first to open a temporary venue in the state for these new locales back in November 2021 in Rockford and broke ground on its permanent venue last September, while Full House Resorts opened The Temporary in Waukegan in February.
Both entities brought top members of their executive teams to Chicago for their progress reports to the board. Hard Rock International COO Jon Lucas was among those making remarks to the IGB, while Full House Resorts CEO Dan Lee did likewise. Lee had slightly more at stake Thursday, given Full House was also up for a full casino license, since the IGB had awarded The Temporary only a temporary operating permit.
During its meeting today, the Illinois Gaming Board approved Bally's Chicago casino preparations and extensions of contemporary casino licenses for Rockford and Waukegan. https://t.co/0bgeIOw5W6
— 13 WREX (@13WREX) June 15, 2023
State law permits an extension of up to 12 months if an operator can show “good cause” in needing that extension. Both companies continue to deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes supply chain logistical issues and higher rates of inflation. But both had plenty of positives to share as well as optimism that their respective permanent venues will be open for gaming within the window of the extension provided by the IGB.
Hard Rock, which was originally targeting an opening later this year, has altered that timetable for an August 2024 opening. The extension granted by the IGB on Thursday provides a deadline of Nov. 7, 2024.
“Hard Rock Casino Rockford thanks the Illinois Gaming Board for its continued commitment to work with us in building the casino facility Rockford has dreamed about for more than 20 years,” said Geno Iafrate, president of Hard Rock Rockford, in a statement. “Anyone driving by the permanent casino location off I-90 can see the progress and excitement build toward the planned opening set for late summer of 2024. Hard Rock will deliver on its promise of a premium destination casino that will be well worth the wait.”
Since opening its doors to the “Opening Act,” Hard Rock has generated just over $91 million in operator revenue, with the state receiving $13.3 million in tax receipts and Rockford and surrounding communities an additional $5.3 million. Its temporary venue was recently approved to offer table games and is currently in the applicant queue for a retail sports wagering license.
Full House, which spent an estimated $40 million on its 70,000-foot temporary venue, has generated $23.5 million in 106 days of gaming. That has provided $2.8 million in state taxes and an additional $1.4 million in city and other local taxes.
Lee conceded the entire property may not be operational at the new deadline provided by the IGB, most notably the 20-room, five-star villa that would be on the grounds, but said Full House will put its primary focus on getting the permanent casino up and running in the new window provided.
“We don’t want to close the Temporary and have a year’s gap,” said Lee, who pointed out it has been challenging to get the 700-strong workforce needed for the casino and repeated his request for a bilingual application form given Waukegan is 55% Hispanic. “We want to have as smooth a transition as we can.”
Shortly after granting Full House an extension to keep The Temporary open until February 2026, the IGB unanimously voted to award a full casino license to the Las Vegas-based entity. Later in the meeting, Full House applied for and was awarded a retail sports wagering license. Circa Sports, which will be conducting both retail and mobile sports wagering in Illinois for Full House, hopes to launch in the state by late August or early September.
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