Hard Rock Thinking Outside The Box With Chicago Casino Proposal

$1.7 billion proposal for a downtown Chicago casino is tied to an ambitious urban redevelopment
Hard Rock Downtown Chicago
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(This is the second in a series of five articles that look at each proposed casino site for downtown Chicago. The previous installment explored the Bally’s Bronzeville bid.)

“Make no little plans.”

Quoting famous 19th century architect and city designer Daniel Burham on the cover of its presentation for its proposed downtown Chicago casino, Hard Rock International looks to transform the third-largest city in the United States as part of an overall concept design that would dramatically change the lakefront area.

Hard Rock International is one three companies — the others being Rush Street Gaming and Bally’s — that 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 is 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 funding.

Hard Rock International’s $1.7 billion proposal is the biggest wild card among the five presented to the city. Similar to Rush Street and Bally’s, Hard Rock does include McCormick Plaza as an anchor of sorts to its plans, but it is the ambition to link the casino with the proposed ONE Central project next to the corporate convention hub that offers intrigue beyond the standard casino and hotel blueprint.

Illinois currently has 10 casinos in operation, and Hard Rock is the furthest along among the six venues that were awarded licenses to build a casino as part of a massive gaming expansion bill signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker in June 2019 that also legalized sports wagering.

Hard Rock opened the doors to its temporary casino in Rockford earlier this month as construction continues on a permanent venue that could open by late 2023 or early 2024. There is still some surprise Hard Rock even submitted a proposal for the downtown license considering it opened a $300 million casino in Gary, Ind., just across the state line in May. Hard Rock Northern Indiana has already put itself among the top casino gaming revenue generators in the Hoosier State and is now part of a formidable trio of casinos in the northwestern part of Indiana that will compete for entertainment dollars with any eventual Chicago casino.

Plenty of gaming positions and other amenities

Hard Rock’s casino would have 3,000 slot machines and 166 table games, with the former figure less than Bally’s (3,400) but more than Rush Street (2,600). The table games total is the lowest among the five proposals, though it is only seven less than Bally’s (173) and 24 less than Rush Street (190). Hard Rock made no mention of plans to potentially use any of the 4,000 gaming positions at O’Hare or Midway airports, which is an option for the winner of the bid awarded the casino license.

The international gaming company also believes its collaboration with ONE Central will lead to higher revenue estimates than the $800 million projected annually in the Union Gaming White Paper from August 2020 after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot successfully revised the tax rates downward for any downtown casino. Hard Rock believes the “tourist-centric” area it will create will result in an additional $70 million in taxes for the city and $81 million more for the state on an annual basis compared to any other location in Chicago.

Beyond the gaming space, there would be eight restaurants, a cafe, and a food hall as well as six lounges and bars. There would be a 3,500-seat venue, a “Rock Spa,” pools, and fitness facilities in addition to public spaces and retail shopping. There are also plans for a 500-room hotel, but that looks to be part of a second phase of construction based on the proposal submitted to the city. In the proposal, Hard Rock says there would be an “initial limiting [of] hotel keys” in order to allow existing hotels owned by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority opportunities to generate revenue.

If awarded the license, Hard Rock offered four potential sites around the McCormick Plaza area to open a temporary casino. One is Lakeside Center — which is the central location of one of Rush Street’s two proposals. The other areas it has open for consideration are McCormick North, the South Parking Lot, and three parcels of land that are part of the ONE Central project. Hard Rock believes it can open the temporary venue in a six-to-nine month period after receiving all regulatory approvals.

So what is ONE Central?

At its most basic level, ONE Central is a $20 billion urban redevelopment plan that would create residential and retail space, park area, and a transit hub on top of the Metra rail yards near Soldier Field. The biggest point of contention regarding ONE Central is the $6.5 billion price tag of public subsidy to help make it a transit hub for the city since it would link local CTA, state Metra, and Amtrak train lines. The project faces some headwinds considering ridership of both CTA and Metra lines has endured a noticeable downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The transit hub would also have a “CHI-line” tram that connects to other tourist sites in the city, with the build on top of the rail yard similar in principle to Millennium Park, one of the top tourist attractions in the city.

Hard Rock envisions ONE Central being part of a “high-caliber entertainment district” that it can leverage based on its vast experience of bringing 35,000 entertainment acts to its properties on an annual basis. Additionally, Hard Rock feels its proposed 3,500-seat venue will be an incremental driver of attendance at other venues including Soldier Field, Wintrust Arena, Arie Crown Theater, and McCormick Place.

Hard Rock also claims it would be the “first wholly private development” in Chicago to use the SouthsideWORKS Economic Opportunity Program, which would go toward building relationships for vendor contracts with Minority-owned Business Enterprises (MBE) and Women-owned Business Enterprises (WBE). SouthsideWORKS is a public-private partnership with ONE Central formed in conjunction with the Chicago Urban League, Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

There has been some opposition to ONE Central, most notably coming in May when State Rep. Kam Buckner filed legislation to block state funding of the project from a 2019 budget implementation bill. Buckner has said he is not opposed to the project but rather feels the state has other pressing needs regarding transportation that must be addressed first.

Photo courtesy of HR Chicago RFP submitted to the City of Chicago

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