Despite Shortlist, Chicago Casino Still Years From Opening

March 28, 2022
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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot surprised almost no one last week by announcing the three finalists to develop and operate a $2bn state-of-the-art casino in the third most populous city in the United States.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot surprised almost no one last week by announcing the three finalists to develop and operate a $2bn state-of-the-art casino in the third most populous city in the United States.

For months, Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming has been considered the favorite for the city’s casino license, followed by Bally’s Corporation and then Hard Rock International as a distant third.

Lightfoot did not rank the three finalists, which were the only bidders to step forward — although the group submitted a total of five applications that have now been whittled down to three — but her announcement confirmed previous speculation about who they would be.

Perhaps more than anything else, Lightfoot’s statement underscored just how long it will be before the much-anticipated casino in Chicago opens for business.

The next step will be a review of the three applications by the Chicago City Council, and no date has been set for a decision on the winner.

Public hearings on the casino proposals are scheduled April 5 for Hard Rock, April 6 for Bally’s and April 7 for Rush Street.

Even after the city council chooses one of the three companies, the process will continue with a review, which is expected to be lengthy, by the Illinois Gaming Board.

Moreover, it would not be entirely surprising to see lawsuits by one or both of the companies whose bids for the Chicago casino license are rejected, leading to protracted litigation.

“A Chicago casino is years away,” said Cory Aronovitz, a gaming attorney at the Casino Law Group in Chicago.

Tom Thanas, the new executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said a casino in Chicago will help Illinois remain a dominant player in the gaming industry.

"The business plan for the Chicago casino calls for many new patrons coming from Chicago visitors who don't venture out of the city for gaming opportunities," Thanas said.

"There will most likely be some adjustments in patron patterns when a Chicago casino opens. But the casino gaming industry has shown resilience to many economic and legislative changes that have challenged the gaming industry during its 30-year history in Illinois."

Neil Bluhm, the sometimes irascible 84-year-old owner of Rush Street Gaming which is a joint owner and operator of Rivers Casino in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, has long been thought to have the inside track on the Chicago casino license, according to gaming industry sources.

Bluhm’s political connections in Chicago and the state legislature in Springfield are incomparable, and he is among the largest financial donors to the Democratic Party in the blue state of Illinois.

Last September, Bluhm withdrew from an agreement with his partner in the Rivers Casino, Churchill Downs, to seek another Illinois license to open a casino in Waukegan, about 26 miles north of Chicago.

Some Illinois gaming observers interpreted Bluhm’s withdrawal from Waukegan as a signal that he is laser focused on obtaining the license to operate the Chicago casino.

Bally’s should not be counted out yet, partly because of its television advertising campaign, by far the most aggressive of all three applicants.

However, Bally’s — which has its origins in Rhode Island but has in recent years acquired a series of regional casinos including a casino in Rock Island in Illinois — is not well known in the Midwest.

Hard Rock International already owns and operates a casino in Gary, Indiana, which is practically a Chicago suburb with its location 25 miles east of the Windy City.

One of the objectives of the Chicago casino is to stop the migration of Illinois gamblers to Indiana casinos and the casino in Gary is not considered helpful to Hard Rock’s bid.

A wildcard in the selection process is Mayor Lightfoot who has said “it’s not a gimme” she will seek re-election on February 28, 2023.

A new mayor could mean more of a delay in the opening of a casino in Chicago.

“I think a casino in Chicago is important to the city because of the increase it would mean for tourism and jobs,” Aronovitz said.

“Even with the saturation of video gambling in Illinois, there’s still an untapped market of eligible gambling-age folks with discretionary income.”

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