Organized Labor Key Topic At First Meeting Of Special Committee On Chicago Casino

Several aldermen weighed in Monday at meeting about downtown casino license
Downtown Chicago casino committee
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It was lengthy, at times circular in terms of questions and answers, and produced little in terms of headway. But the Chicago City Council’s Special Committee created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to help arrive at a consensus on presenting a finalist to the Illinois Gaming Board for the city’s coveted downtown casino license did establish some talking points in its first meeting Monday.

The committee, which is comprised of more than half of the city’s 50 aldermen and chaired by Ald. Tom Tunney, was created by Lightfoot last month and includes many members of her leadership team. The committee will select from three finalists — Bally’s, Hard Rock, and Rivers 78 (Rush Street Gaming) — that made the cut last month from the original five that made bids to the city last winter. Bally’s and Rush Street each had a proposal connected to McCormick Place fail to make the cut in the city’s evaluations.

The city has projected annual local tax revenue of close to $200 million from a downtown casino, money that would go directly to addressing its underfunded police and fire pensions per state law. The state also would receive approximately $200 million annually from a Chicago casino as it hopes to repatriate what it estimates to be $331 million annually in gaming revenue that goes across the state line to Indiana.

All three finalists made public presentations in early April, with many citizens coming out against having the casino in their respective neighborhoods. Concerns over traffic and safety were among issues cited during public comment periods in the city-run presentations that featured executive teams from each casino operator.

Labor unions call

The public comment period that began Monday’s meeting saw multiple parties backing the Bally’s Tribune proposal, as well as calls from Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter and Unite Here Local 1 President Karen Kent for no casino operator proposal to be accepted until agreeing to a unionized labor force. Reiter’s group represents more than 300 affiliated unions and more than 500,000 workers in the Chicago and Cook County areas, while Kent’s shop represents hospitality workers.

“From the beginning of this process … we stood firm that any casino in Chicago must commit to working with labor to provide good jobs that support our families and our communities,” Reiter said, pointing out only one of the three finalists appeared, in his words, “remotely interested in moving the conversation.”

“What good is millions in revenue if it keeps thousands of workers marginalized below the poverty line?” he asked rhetorically. “[It] doesn’t make sense. To move forward without the commitment to pay living wages and respect workers’ rights is a slap in the face to the labor movement of Chicago.”

Jennie Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer, pointed out that having deals with labor was one of the requirements placed in the city’s RFPs. Reiter’s comments prompted a groundswell of support for organized labor among every alderman who offered public commentary on the casino.

They also peppered Bennett and Samir Mayekar, the city’s deputy mayor for Economic and Neighborhood Development, with questions ranging from why the city allowed the operators to choose the potential site for the downtown casino, to why the two proposals in proximity to McCormick Place were nixed, to revisiting whether Hard Rock has the ability to decouple itself from the ONE Central plank of its proposal.

Mayekar explained the COVID-19 pandemic was a “curveball” with regard to the real estate market. Since the casino is “such a large project that has to get financed,” he felt it was beneficial for the bidders to work across multiple sites to see what they could finance in terms of a project expected to cost at least $1.7 billion depending on the finalist, and likely closer to $2 billion.

Mayekar also pointed out that if the city led the real estate process without hearing from the private market it would be a challenge, though Ald. Michael Scott Jr. from the 24th Ward countered that “the pushback from elected officials or communities not having that site identified beforehand is going to be a big barrier as well.”

Aldermen directly impacted by casino take center stage

All three aldermen and alderwomen whose wards would be host to a casino and came out publicly in opposition last week were given space by Tunney for extensive questioning of Bennett and Mayekar, with Ald. Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward letting fly with a torrent of questions regarding both the Hard Rock and Rivers 78 proposals that were brought forward by her constituents. While it was again confirmed Hard Rock did have the ability to separate from ONE Central, Assistant Commissioner Noah Szafraniec also pointed out that three different planning developments would have to be amended for that proposal.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who represents the 25th Ward — which would be impacted by Rivers 78 — and was at the meeting as a non-committee member, expressed concern about an overall cost benefit of the casino when taking into account potential issues such as gambling addiction and the negative impact on growing businesses in neighboring Chinatown and Pilsen. One subplot to the casino committee is the city is also currently in the midst of an intense redistricting battle of the aldermanic ward map that could result in some aldermen shuffling into and out of wards that could host a casino.

Ald. Walter Burnett, whose 27th Ward would be home to the Bally’s Tribune proposal, almost sounded like he was hoping for a way to delay the discussion, but Bennett pointed out the city wants to get the casino finalist to the IGB this summer as a means of including the upfront payment from the winning operator in the 2023 budget since the city does not project any gaming revenue in the budget for Fiscal Year 2023.

The $200 million in state taxes projected from a downtown casino nearly equals the $248.7 million generated in 2021 by the state’s 11 current venues, one of which was a temporary location opened in Rockford by Hard Rock. All three finalists operate casinos in the state, though Bally’s Quad Cities is in the northwest part of the state near the Iowa border.

Rush Street Gaming operates Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, which is currently the highest casino revenue generator in the state and is less than 20 miles from its proposed Rivers 78 location downtown. Hard Rock opened a casino in northern Indiana less than 35 miles from Chicago last May, and that venue generated more than $38 million in revenue for March. By comparison, Rivers paced all Illinois operators with $44 million in casino revenue in March.

Photo: Shutterstock

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