Bally’s Hoping River West Proposal Is A Winner For Chicago Casino

Bally's out to make headlines by building a casino on the grounds of a newspaper publishing plant
Bally's Chicago River West Casino
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(This is the fourth in a series of five articles that look at each proposed casino site for downtown Chicago. The previous installments explored Bally’s Bronzeville, Hard Rock’s bid, and Rush Street Gaming’s McCormick Place bid.)

Bally’s wants to make a Chicago casino that will become its “flagship property.” The question is whether the city of Chicago wants Bally’s.

Seemingly every casino proposal carries the promise of the sun, moon, and stars when it comes to projected tax revenues for the city, community involvement at the hyperlocal level, and being a destination that will draw tourists and locals alike to be a source of civic pride that raises a city’s profile. Chicago is no different in that regard when it comes to being wooed, with the notable exception that the stakes are sky-high given that the “City of Broad Shoulders” is currently on track to be the largest in the United States to have a casino, as New York City and Los Angeles currently do not. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been promoting a proposed downtown casino as an international destination and said earlier this summer that such a venue is a “once in a generation opportunity.”

Bally’s is one of three companies — the others being Rush Street Gaming and Hard Rock International — that have presented five total proposals to the city of Chicago for its downtown casino license. If the process remains true to the projected timeline — no easy feat given the task of building a gaming venue in an urban metropolis — the casino would open by 2025 and be expected to generate between $160 and $200 million in annual taxes and fees that the city of Chicago would allocate to police and fire department pension funds.

Bally’s $1.8 billion Tribune bid stands out for a few reasons, but most notably for being the only proposed venue of the five that would be geographically located on the North Side of the city at Chicago and Halsted Avenues in the River West neighborhood. Much of the details regarding the bid are nearly identical to Bally’s Bronzeville proposal — the $25 million upfront payment to the city, an eventual total of 3,400 slots and 173 table games, and expectations to build a 500-room hotel are also found in the Tribune bid.

Illinois currently has 10 casinos in operation, including one run by Bally’s in Rock Island in the northwest part of the state near Quad Cities. The downtown Chicago area is one of six venues the Illinois Gaming Board will issue new licenses for as part of a massive gaming expansion bill signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker in June 2019 that also legalized sports wagering.

The promise of a ‘flagship’ location

Despite having a presence in Illinois through the Quad Cities location, Bally’s has only recently become a recognizable name in casino gaming in the Midwest. Much of that has had to do with a spending spree that started last year when Twin Rivers acquired the Bally’s name from Caesars for rebranding purposes and began purchasing properties. It now has 16 properties nationwide, thanks to its purchase of 21 regional Fox Sports Networks from Sinclair that were also rebranded to the Bally’s name. While there is no Bally Sports Illinois, Bally’s is an affiliate of the Marquee Sports Network, which airs Chicago Cubs games.

Bally’s being “new media” brings an almost ironic dynamic to its desire to make the site of the Chicago Tribune — the city’s paper of record since 1847 — its potential home for a casino. Bally’s has an option to purchase the property from Nexstar Media Group, and its proposed casino plan would result in the demolition of the publishing plant and require both of the city’s newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, to find new places to print.

Sensing the need to compete with perceived favorite Rush Street Gaming, whose co-founder Neil Bluhm is a Chicago native, and Hard Rock, with its nearby Indiana casino and one under construction in Rockford, Bally’s has committed to the Chicago casino — should it be the winning bid — being its flagship property.

We are ‘all in’ and 100 percent committed to Chicago. As our flagship property, Bally’s Chicago has no conflicting interest in the Chicago market. We don’t operate, own or partially own casino properties located within the Chicagoland market. Simply put, Bally’s is conflict-free. Our full attention will be focused on driving visitors to Bally’s Chicago.

The proposed River West location is somewhat central in terms of attractions and accessibility. It is less than half a mile from the Grand Avenue stop on the Blue Line of the CTA, which has service to and from O’Hare Airport. It is less than two miles from the Magnificent Mile shopping district, approximately two miles from the United Center, and one mile from Fulton Market, which has expansive dining options.

Similar blueprint to Bronzeville

Bally’s Tribune casino would be built in two phases, similar to how it laid out its Bronzeville bid. The first phase is a $1 billion buildout that would feature 2,700 slot machines and 95 table games that allows for the potential expansion of gaming space or other amenities as needed. It would also include a 100-suite luxury hotel, an outdoor music venue with seating capacity ranging from 500 to 1,000, green space, and dining options curated by One Off Hospitality, which is run by James Beard award winner and Chicago native Paul Kahan.

The second phase, with a price tag of at least $600 million, would begin after a 20% return on investment is established. It would add 700 slot machines and 78 more table games, while the space would incorporate six dining venues. Bally’s would also build a 400-room hotel tower with a rooftop pool and bar, a 3,000-seat entertainment venue, and a 20,000-square-foot exhibition center that would include a Chicago-themed sports museum.

Similar to the Bronzeville bid, Bally’s appears to be holding a portion of the 4,000 allowable gaming positions for use at O’Hare and Midway airports as allowed to the winning bid. In its executive summary, Bally’s noted it would try “to leverage the airport visitation by utilizing a portion of the available 4,000 gaming positions allocated to the Project and will work with the City to right-size the number of positions to be placed at O’Hare and Midway airports. We believe that, properly marketed, the airport visitation will capture incremental customers for Bally’s Chicago and generate additional tax revenue for the City.”

Bally’s also stated in its executive summary that Chicago’s minority investors will have a 25% ownership stake and include “philanthropists, business  owners, sports stars, celebrities, and everyday Chicagoans from the Black and Latinx communities, as well as other ethnic and gender representation.”

Bally’s also hopes to notably exceed the city’s requirements for Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (WBE) representation, looking to make commitments of 36% for MBE and 10% for WBE. The city is requiring 26% and 6% as its respective thresholds to reach. Bally’s also has goals of 45% for both minority and women hiring goals, as well as 5% for both veterans and persons with disabilities.

A friendly gaming face in Alderman Burnett

Unlike its Bronzeville bid, which has already come under criticism from Alderperson Sophia King in her 4th Ward, Bally’s looks to have a political ally for its Tribune bid in 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett. Burnett’s ward also incorporates the United Center, and he proposed the city ordinance to lift the home-rule ban this summer that would allow teams to construct retail sportsbooks at their venues.

Should it pass, the ordinance would allow for sportsbooks to be built at or within a five-block radius of the United Center, Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, and Soldier Field. If Pritzker signs HB 3136 as expected, Wintrust Arena would also be added to that list. Bluhm provided testimony in opposition to the ordinance earlier this month, saying it would create a drain on potential revenue that a downtown casino could generate.

Bally’s has no objections to sports venues having retail sportsbooks, with Director of Corporate Development Chris Jewett offering a statement via e-mail which read, “Bally’s is committed to making Chicago its flagship property, and we have no issue with Chicago sports teams having sportsbooks. Our nearest property is more than 180 miles away, and our priority will remain driving tourists and residents to a quality Chicago casino and entertainment center. We feel confident in our strategy.”

Photo courtesy Bally’s Corporation RFP submitted to the city of Chicago

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