Key Takeaways From The Downtown Chicago Casino Public Presentations

The three companies making bids know they have to foster community relationships for sustainable success
Chicago casino presentation review
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After submitting their written RFPs to the city of Chicago for its downtown casino license in late October, Bally’s, Hard Rock, and Rush Street made public presentations at the University of Illinois-Chicago last Thursday.

Including the ensuing Q-and-A with presenters and public commentary, the process lasted nearly six hours. At the start, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reiterated her goal to present a winning bidder to the city council during the first quarter of next year and expressed hope the Illinois Gaming Board could approve the prospective licensee in an “expeditious and timely manner” to help maintain a timeline that would see a full-service casino open to the public by 2025.

Amid the talk of the spectacle of a casino — the bright lights, the ostentatious building plans, the plans to turn Chicago into a Midwest mecca of gaming — there was a seriousness all three gaming companies brought to the dais. Evident was an understanding, to echo the mayor’s words, that this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Equity, diversity, and inclusion were paid more than lip service by the presenters. It is an understatement to simply say a casino could be life-altering to the surrounding neighborhoods and communities because for all the promises and potential of positive outcomes, there is always the chance some promises go unkept and some potential is never fulfilled.

In watching the presentations, it was interesting to see the tone of the proposals versus merely reading them for nuts and bolts information. Did the presentations challenge preconceived notions? Would any company expand on its proposals? In some ways, it was akin to watching a city speed date, albeit at a pace of 45 minutes per presentation. All the same, here are some takeaways and observations.

Rivers McCormick Place (Rush Street)

The RFP vibe: If the city of Chicago wants to hit the ground running with a casino that could quickly generate tax revenue and do so in a fiscally responsible manner, Rivers McCormick Place would provide the best bang for the buck.

Did the presentation stay consistent with that theme? Yes. Perhaps the only surprise came with arguably its biggest selling point: Rush Street co-founder Neil Bluhm and McLaurin Development CEO and founder Zeb McLaurin believe they can open a fully operational casino at the Lakeside Center in 12 months after receiving all required approvals versus going from a temporary to permanent facility.

If correct, Rivers McCormick Place could potentially open 18 months sooner than the 2025 timeline the mayor’s office has established. And with an annual estimated casino revenue of $800 million, the eventual tax revenue the city gets from that projected $1.2 billion going toward severely underfunded police and fire pension funds is undoubtedly attractive.

Also of note to city finances is Rivers absorbing the deferred maintenance costs of the Lakeside Center, which it estimated between $400 million and $600 million. As the southernmost proposed venue, Rivers feels it has a significant chance to keep casino revenue — and therefore tax revenue for the city and state — in Illinois and out of Indiana. That has been a notable point of interest given the Hoosier State has three casinos just over the state line that generated a combined $74.5 million in revenue in November, with a notable percentage of players making that short drive from Chicago and the surrounding areas.

Bluhm’s strength was presenting Rush Street as the adult in the room. He touted its track record of constructing casinos across multiple U.S. cities and Canada both on time and on budget. The Chicago native pointed out Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plaines is the biggest casino gaming tax revenue generator in the state and has been generating the largest revenue per gaming position in the nation for years.

Rush Street has experience building casinos in urban areas, with Philadelphia the most cited example. In some respects, Lakeside Center may be an easier build considering there looks to be more refurbishment and repurposing of space than demolition and construction to stay true to late architect Helmut Jahn’s design. Lastly, leaning into McCormick Place and the convention industry offers the potential knock-on economic impact of an estimated 300 hotel rooms per night generating additional city taxes beyond gaming revenue.

Hard Rock International

The RFP vibe: intrigue and curiosity, considering Hard Rock was not expected to be among the bidders. It opened a casino in northwest Indiana in May and already has a temporary casino in Illinois conducting business in Rockford near the Wisconsin state line. That may have allowed it to swing for the fences in Chicago, teaming up with ONE Central as part of a vast urban redevelopment.

Did the presentation stay consistent with the theme? It did in the sense that Hard Rock reminded everyone it is a global brand, but there was also an undercurrent of ambitiousness that showed it was not simply happy to be here being among the bidders.

Naturally, Hard Rock had a sizzle reel as part of its presentation. A video had peak celebrity starpower on display, with clips of Jennifer Lopez, Jay-Z, and Beyonce making the rounds at one of its casinos while Pitbull’s “I Feel Good” served as the soundtrack.

That was followed by Bob Dunn of Landmark Development and architect of ONE Central explaining the importance of the transit hub in which Hard Rock’s casino would be the gaming anchor in a central location, allowing public transport to the city’s world class destinations via the “CHI Line” while also utilizing multimodal transportation.

The other ambition came on the financial side from Englewood native Jim Reynolds, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Loop Capital. Reynolds explained Hard Rock is willing to put its money where its mouth is with regard to minority ownership investment by stating the company’s goal of reaching 50% minority ownership when including the general partnership.

In addressing concerns about the $6.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies required for the transportation side of the ONE Central project, Hard Rock has committed to $3.8 billion in civic build for the gaming aspect of the project to maintain the pace of casino construction should it be awarded the license.

Rivers 78 (Rush Street)

The RFP vibe: Whereas Rush Street’s McCormick Place proposal is its “safe” play of what a standard casino and entertainment complex could be as an anchor to the convention area, Rivers 78 offered a stark contrast that looks to engage a younger demographic, trying to woo them from the North Side neighborhoods with the allure of a casino in a vibrant new neighborhood.

Did the presentation stay consistent with the theme? If anything, the RFP understated the vision shared by Related Midwest President Curt Bailey, Project Manager Yanet Garcia, Rush Street Gaming co-founder Greg Carlin, and Bowa President Noah C. Ehimwenman.

While that quartet presented the substance of the presentation in a relaxed setting, JGMA founder and President Juan Moreno offered the sizzle with a passionate architect’s rendering of how the parcel of land in the South Loop would look with the casino during an interactive presentation, reimagining the vantage points from the south and west parts of the city in contrast to the traditional ones from the north and the lakefront.

“The 78” shares a common thread with Hard Rock in the sense of urban redevelopment, but Bailey and his team see their project as part of a mixed-use neighborhood. The casino would be part of an entertainment district that is connected to a residential district and an innovation district headlined by the University of Illinois System’s Discovery Park Institute. There was a distinct hunger to “The 78” presentation, with Bailey noting how Related Midwest has already contributed to Chicago’s iconic skyline with previous buildings.

They offered another such building with an Observation Tower — a “Chicago Eiffel Tower” that would reach over 1,000 feet in height with multiple observation decks. They also proposed a “cultural ribbon,” a promenade approximately one-half mile in length that would be open year-round as an attraction.

Bally’s Tribune and McCormick Place

The RFP vibe: Bally’s made the decision to present two sites with a similar proposal in terms of casino scope to the city, stressing its comfort with both locations it had selected. The RFPs provided a sense of flattering the city. Bally’s noted the name would be returning home to its Chicago roots as a gaming company and that the casino formally known as Twin River before purchasing the Bally’s name from Caesars 14 months ago as part of its vast rebrand wants to establish Midwestern roots.

Did the presentation stay consistent with the theme? Mostly, as Bally’s made one presentation that covered both proposed sites. One of the distinctive features of the Bally’s bid is its omnichannel gaming strategy. Bally’s is primarily a gaming company, but it is also a technology company and a media company. It has become a gaming “Voltron” of sorts, acquiring casinos, sports wagering, and daily fantasy components to bring them all in-house and piece them together ahead of what is expected to be a pivotal 2022.

But specific to Chicago, the omnichannel is expected to leverage a nationwide database of approximately 20 million customers Bally’s can funnel to Chicago as a gaming destination and then integrate with the local communities and businesses to help create a broader economic impact beyond the casino. The word “flagship” has been used consistently by Bally’s when it comes to its vision of Chicago, and it did not shy away from it.

Bally’s also showed a sense of understanding either location was going to impact an urban area and its respective neighborhood. It included Peter Reinhofer, project manager at V3 Companies, explaining how they potentially planned to alleviate traffic concerns at the River West location and also some of the changes they would like to make for traffic in Bronzeville.

If there was one area where Bally’s may have shown too much of its hand, it was the admission its Bronzeville proposal projects to be the higher revenue generator of the two. To that end, Bally’s upfront payment to the city should it accept Bronzeville as the casino location is $50 million — double that of the payment it has committed for the River West proposal.

Photo: Shutterstock

(Editor’s note: Chris Altruda is a Chicago resident in Logan Square. Of the five RFPs submitted to the city, he resides closest to the Bally’s Tribune proposal.)

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