Alderman Tom Tunney, who is chairing the Special Committee on the Chicago Casino, laid the groundwork for the process Friday when the full committee met for just the third time since being created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in late March. The plan was to recess and reconvene Monday afternoon following a recess of the full city council meeting scheduled earlier that day.
Should the special committee approve Bally’s $1.7 billion proposal to build a casino in the River West neighborhood — selected by Lightfoot earlier this month — the full city council would reconvene later Monday to “defer and publish,” a procedural maneuver that will give the city’s 50 aldermen more time to review the proposal and Host Community Agreement between Bally’s and the city. The rules of the “defer and publish” procedure also permit a full vote on the proposal Wednesday, when another city council meeting is scheduled.
Not everyone thrilled about Bally’s casino
It would be IMPOSSIBLE for me to overstate how unusual & unprecedented that Chicago City Council schedule is.
It is quite an accelerated timeline.
— Heather Cherone (@HeatherCherone) May 20, 2022
Bally’s proposal beat out bids from Rush Street Gaming and Hard Rock. It plans to build the casino at the Tribune publishing plant, which has been met with notable pushback from local residents concerned about crime, traffic, and potentially declining property values.
The downtown Chicago area received one of the six newly created casino licenses as part of the 2019 gaming expansion bill Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law that also legalized sports wagering. The city is hoping to generate $200 million in tax revenue annually from the casino, all of which would go toward addressing shortfalls in the city’s police and fire pensions. The city has stressed the importance of moving quickly, as it estimates losing $331 million in annual gaming revenue to neighboring Indiana.
Illinois’ 11 casinos generated $122 million in gaming revenue in April, resulting in $21 million in state taxes. The state, though, is the nation’s leader in video gaming terminal play, which has generated an additional $258 million in state taxes through the first four months of the year.
Concerns arise about CFO authority
The Host Community Agreement that Bally’s and the city would be required to sign was undergoing edits as recently as Thursday evening. A notable alteration is the entire $40 million upfront payment Bally’s is making to the city to be the operator would be directed to the city’s fire and police pension fund, which would count toward Fiscal Year 2023 if approved. Other smaller changes throughout the document and exhibits led Tunney to declaring there would be no vote taken at Friday’s meeting before unveiling Monday’s timeline.
A second area that brought concern, primarily from Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, was the wide scope of authority the city’s chief financial officer had with regards to potential decisions over waivers that could be issued if Bally’s failed to meet certain percentage targets, as well as not bringing larger material changes back to the city council for approval should they arise. City of Chicago CFO Jennie Huang Bennett noted edits to include language that would require such decisions to have city council approval could be implemented over the weekend.
Reilly is the primary voice of opposition to the Bally’s proposal, and his River North ward includes Medinah Temple, site of the temporary casino that would open in 2023 if everything goes according to plan. He again decried the accelerated pace of the proceedings and once more likened the process to the city’s much-maligned deal to privatize its parking meters. That 75-year lease with Chicago Parking Meters, reached under Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009, provided the city nearly $1.2 billion up front, but has since become lopsided in favor of CPM.
Reilly also expressed concern about potential crime around Medinah Temple, pointing out Thursday night’s mass shooting that killed two and wounded seven occurred four blocks away. He also was highly skeptical of the recently completed traffic study for the neighborhood around Medinah Temple, something that was not performed before it was surprisingly named as the site of the temporary casino when Lightfoot tabbed Bally’s Tribune proposal as the city’s preferred bid.
When pressed by Reilly, Tunney did not fully commit to a vote at Monday’s select committee meeting should there be substantial changes to the Host Community Agreement.
“I am the chairman of the committee,” Tunney said. “I will get the temperature and figure out what the will of the body is and take one day at a time. I can’t speak for the 33 or other members. You have obviously a lot of concerns, and rightly so. … Your points have helped the discussion.
“I think by Monday I’ll get a sense of whether they (committee members) want to move it on Monday and I think we’re going to do our due diligence over the weekend to try and make sure we get honest answers to the questions whether we agree with them or not.”