Bally’s took another crucial step forward in its efforts to build a $1.7 billion casino in downtown Chicago on Wednesday when the full city council approved its proposal for the River West neighborhood.
The 39-5 vote, with five absent and one recusal, came after the city’s plan commission and zoning committee each approved the amended proposal on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Aldermen Brendan Reilly, Anthony Beale, Edward Burke, Brian Hopkins, and Raymond Lopez cast the five no votes. Bally’s was designated as the city’s preferred operator in May, beating out Rush Street and Hard Rock, and submitted its application to the Illinois Gaming Board (IGB) for the downtown casino license in August.
The approval gives Mayor Lori Lightfoot a key campaign plank in her bid for reelection. She kickstarted the bidding process by rewriting the city tax rates for a downtown casino, which was approved in May 2020 as part of the fiscal year 2021 budget. The downtown casino is projected to generate $800 million in revenue and $200 million in annual tax revenue for the city at full maturity, which would address Chicago’s underfunded police and fire pensions.
The downtown casino license is one of six created by the 2019 gaming expansion act signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker that also legalized sports wagering in Illinois. If the Bally’s application is approved by the IGB, it hopes to operate a temporary casino at Medinah Temple starting in the second quarter of next year, with plans to open its permanent casino in 2026.
Of the six locations approved for a license statewide, only Rockford is currently conducting wagering, as Hard Rock has been operating a temporary casino since November 2021. Ground has been broken at the other four locations: Williamson County, Danville, Waukegan, and suburban Cook County.
Key changes from Bally’s original proposal
Bally’s two biggest changes to its plans for the 30-acre parcel containing the casino was the removal of a pedestrian bridge and the decision to move a 3,000-seat outdoor entertainment venue indoors as part of the overall casino structure.
Those changes came about after a series of community engagement meetings with River West residents, who were notably opposed to the pedestrian bridge from the outset. Additional concerns were raised about noise and light pollution with the outdoor venue.
Another notable change to the plan was an additional half-acre of green space to include a dog park, a riverwalk path along the Chicago River, and a three-level underground garage to help alleviate potential traffic congestion. Traffic concerns have been a constant point of attention among River West residents, who believe a casino will further snarl a challenging area to navigate. Bally’s core plans to have a casino with 3,400 slots, 173 table games, a 500-room hotel, exhibit area, and 11 restaurants were unchanged prior to the committee votes.
Casino revenue at Illinois’ 11 venues has totaled more than $1.2 billion through the first 11 months of the year, with Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — 15 miles from the Tribune Publishing Plant, where the Chicago Tribune is located and where Bally’s wants to build — accounting for nearly 40% of that total. Bally’s eventual casino will also face competition from three venues in Northwest Indiana, where Ameristar Casino, Horseshoe Hammond, and Hard Rock Northern Indiana have combined to generate $287.4 million in casino win this year.