The potential for the casino to bring more traffic, more crime and falling real estate values to the River West neighborhood was among the concerns of city officials, and the developer attempted to address it at a sometimes tense town hall meeting Thursday night.
Hundreds of people attended the gathering at the University of Illinois Chicago to learn about Bally’s proposal to build a $1.7 billion casino, hotel and entertainment facility at what is now the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing facility – Dollar to rehabilitate.
The forum became controversial as people’s comments lasted longer than 90 seconds and their microphone was turned off, prompting others to shout from the crowd. Some listeners accused the city of sidestepping public feedback by choosing a final proposal before a select city council committee made a recommendation.
A panel of Bally representatives, city guides and a representative from the Chicago Police Department were in attendance.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is in Texas for campaigns and official events, but she sent a video message to attendees, thanking them for their interest in the proposal and promoting it as a plan that will boost Chicago financially.
It’s estimated that Bally’s proposal will bring the city about $200 million in annual tax revenue — though some have questioned those claims. And such touted benefits might do little to reassure nearby residents who fear a gambling complex is moving into the neighborhood.
But the main theme of many commenters was, as one local resident said, “Casinos just don’t belong in residential areas, period.” She called her neighborhood near the proposed site “quiet, stable, and family-oriented.”
Jill Funfsinn has lived across the river from the proposed casino site for about 14 years. She decided to attend Thursday’s forum to be better informed about the project, which she said would bring additional noise, traffic and lights to a previously quiet community.
“I just hope they hear people,” Funfsinn said before the meeting began, “that they’re not just doing it for lip service.”
Others raised questions about predatory marketing and gambling addiction, asking Bally and city officials how they plan to curb addiction. A man from Stop Predatory Gambling Illinois asked Bally’s if they would be willing to ban ATMs in arcades to reduce addiction. He cited studies that have shown that gambling addiction leads to higher rates of people suffering from depression, divorce and other issues that affect the individual.
“No amount of revenue for the city is worth the welfare of the people,” he said.
A representative for the Chicago Hospitality Workers Union, which represents many immigrant workers and women of color, said many people in the industry are still unemployed and have been laid off during the pandemic. She hopes that the project will start so that people can be offered good jobs that enable their members to support their families.
There were also hints of a compromise: speakers questioned a plan for a pedestrian bridge that would connect the entertainment complex to a nearby residential area, prompting Bally chairman Soo Kim to say he was abandoning that part of the plan would.
Lightfoot announced last week that it had decided to go ahead with Bally’s proposal over four other offers. It still needs to be approved by the City Council and then the Illinois Gaming Board. The developer aims to open a temporary casino within about a year and have the permanent site operational by 2026.
Bally’s has signed a memorandum of understanding to expand its temporary location at the landmark Medinah Temple at 600 N. Wabash Ave. in River North, a decision that has already spurred opposition in its own neighborhood, including the local Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward. He called the idea “terrible” and also raised concerns about a newly introduced regulation allowing alcohol to be served in the makeshift casino.
Some residents near the proposed permanent site have expressed strong opposition to Bally’s proposal every step of the way.
The River North Residents Association, which represents nearly 23,000 people living near Bally’s proposed site, has raised concerns about crime, traffic, safety, noise and use of the Chicago River, with more than 86% of 2,311 survey respondents opposed the casino are .
The entertainment complex plans include a 500-room hotel tower, a 3,000-seat theater, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants, and a casino with 3,400 slot machines and 170 gaming tables.
The Bally’s plan calls for the demolition of the 41-year-old factory and the relocation of the Tribune printing plant to make way for the construction of the permanent casino.
The casino company has an option to buy the 30-acre Freedom Center from Dallas-based Nexstar Media Group, which acquired it in 2019 as part of its $4.1 billion purchase of Tribune Media, the former broadcast parent from Tribune Publishing.