What Might Chicago’s New Downtown Casino Resort Look Like?

  • The four groups vying for downtown Chicago’s first casino resort have revealed their proposals
  • Hard Rock’s plan is for a $1.7 bn project on a platform over Metra tracks near Soldier Field
  • Bally’s proposals are a $1.8bn Freedom Center project and a $1.6bn McCormick Place plan
  • Rivers’ submissions include a $1.3bn McCormick Place plan and a $2bn project at The 78
  • A public engagement process begins Dec 16 when developers present plans, field questions
Bally's proposed Chicago casino
Five firms have provided their proposals for Chicago casino projects, including a $1.6bn plan from Bally’s Corporation (pictured above). [Image: Solomon Cordwell Buenz]

Five rivals, one license

Plans for downtown Chicago’s first-ever casino resort are moving steadily along, and City Hall has now revealed five proposals from rivals competing for the one available license. Now that the four development groups have unveiled their $1bn+ visions, Chicagoans can finally see what their new casino might look like.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy director of communications Ryan Johnson took to Twitter last Friday with news his office had released a summary of the submissions:

From truck marshaling yards to a publishing plant, the submissions “truly value Chicago assets,” according to Deputy Mayor for economic development Samir Mayekar. During a conference call on Friday, Mayekar added that the proposals were all “well over $1bn worth of development” and would stimulate the city’s economy.

The five casino resort proposals came from four development groups, Bally’s Corporation, HR Chicago, Rivers Chicago at McCormick, and Rivers 78 Gaming.

Hard Rock hits some snags

HR Chicago’s partner Hard Rock International submitted a proposal for a $1.7bn project on a platform over Metra tracks near Soldier Field. According to Hard Rock, the One Central proposal would generate an additional $70m in gaming revenue for the city and $81m more for Illinois “compared to any other location in Chicago.”

Hard Rock’s “entertainment-focused strategy” for its One Central project includes 3,400 slots, 166 table games, 500 hotel rooms, and a 3,500-seater entertainment venue and spa. Hard Rock said its proposal reflects a “holistic, destination development to attract locals, the existing tourist base [including conventioneers], and induce new tourism.”

One snag with Hard Rock’s submission is that it would take $6.5bn in state subsidies to be realized, an idea the Chicago Sun-Times said both Lightfoot and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker had not taken issue with.

Another potential stumbling block comes from Hard Rock’s plan for its temporary casino. The operator intends to open its temporary casino at Lakeside Center and use existing parking. However, South Loop residents have already voiced their opposition to this proposed wall of new high-rises on the “transit tabletop.”

Bally’s goes for two

Bally’s has weighed in with two proposals. One is a $1.8bn casino resort for the current Freedom Center riverside home of the Chicago Tribune, also the location of its printing press and that of the Sun-Times. The firm’s second option is a $1.6bn development on the South Lakefront’s truck marshaling yards next to McCormick Place.

Bally’s two plans are identical in each including 3,400 slots, 173 table games, 500 hotel rooms, 3,000-seat entertainment venues, 20,000 square-foot exhibition centers, and outdoor/rooftop green spaces. The firm has also confirmed that it will “accelerate revenue” to Chicago via an “upfront incentive payment” of $25m for its Freedom Center plan, or $50m for its McCormick plan if it wins a license. The casino company claims its brand will attract more visitors to Chicago.

Bally’s unique selling proposition for McCormick is that it includes “a portion of the available 4,000 gaming positions allocated to the project” for O’Hare and Midway airports.

Bally’s has got in a sly dig at Chicago casino bigwig Neil Bluhm

In claiming it is “conflict-free” with no other interest in the Chicago market, Bally’s has got in a sly dig at Chicago casino bigwig Neil Bluhm and his Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Without mentioning Bluhm or his Rush Street Gaming brand by name, Bally’s said: “We don’t operate, own or partially own casino property located elsewhere within the Chicagoland market.”

Bluhm’s blueprints

The two proposals from billionaire Bluhm’s stable are a $1.3bn casino near McCormick Place and a $2bn project at The 78, an eight-acre riverfront entertainment district along the south branch of the Chicago River.

Bluhm’s McCormick blueprint includes 2,600 slots and 190 table games. It will utilize McCormick Place’s 2,900 hotel rooms and can add an additional 250+. Option two at The 78 includes the same number of slots and table games. The plan features a 300-room hotel, a riverfront plaza, and multi-purpose riverfront live entertainment venue.

Bluhm claims the McCormick plan would bankroll “much-needed restoration and deferred maintenance” of the Lakeside Center. Option two at The 78 — a long-vacant chunk of real estate — could encounter some issues, however. The plans may conflict with Governor Pritzker’s idea to use the space for a University of Illinois tech research center.

Next steps

Chicago officials expressed confidence that all five proposals will generate “in the ballpark” of $200m annually. To get to that stage, City Hall is gearing up to launch the public engagement process. This will manifest itself in a December 16 public hearing where developers present their wares and field questions.

Lightfoot intends to submit a final recommendation to the Illinois Gaming Board during the first quarter of 2022, with the finished, permanent casino slated to open by 2025.

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