Chicago casino finalists: Rush Street closes public meetings round defending new neighborhood’s project

Rush Street Gaming on Thursday headed the last of three community meetings held this week by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and the finalists for the city’s sole casino license, after Hard Rock on Tuesday and Bally’s on Wednesday.

‘Rivers 78’ casino developers, a joint venture between Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming and Chicago megadeveloper Related Midwest, said they plan to build a brand-new “neighborhood from the ground up” that they say will create a new “epicenter of Chicago tourism.” This would be the only finalist proposing a casino with a neighborhood sprouting up around it, the executives said Thursday at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Dorin Forum.

Bluhm did not take the stage Thursday, but Rush Street Gaming CFO Tim Drehkoff, to become CEO in May, represented the company.

The location would be on a rare slice of undeveloped Loop-adjacent land south of Roosevelt Road and west of Clark Street. Known as “The 78” for its potential to become the city’s 78th official community area, its 62 vacant acres have seen other grand plans surface and fail repeatedly over the years, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. — and many in the community say they want the casino proposal to meet the same fate.

The 78 is a 141-acre, $7 billion development that required years of planning and clearing city regulatory hurdles before receiving $700 million in tax increment financing subsidies for infrastructure necessary to support the project. The site is still largely a blank canvas, aside from the coming University of Illinois Discovery Partners Institute, which represents an opportunity to “create an entire neighborhood from the ground up with a casino already integrated from the beginning,” said Related Midwest CEO Curt Bailey.

During the public hearing, South Loop residents raised many of the concerns that have been leveled against the other bidders, including increased traffic, the potential for more crime and the threat of gambling addiction. “We don’t need a casino in order to have a nice development at the 78 that’s for the community,” one resident told the 78 casino backers. 

Debbie Liu, co-chair of The 78 Community Advisory Council, simply called for the city to slow down its selection process “so all stakeholders can better understand each of the proposals.” Liu called the casino project “inconsistent with the original vision” of the land, citing a survey that found 78% of 400 respondents opposed the casino.

The Rivers 78 team argued their $1.6 billion bid stands out with an extension of the Chicago Riverwalk to Ping Tom Park, a 300-room hotel and a 1,078-foot observation tower that Bailey has dubbed “an Eiffel Tower for Chicago.” The casino would feature 2,600 slots, 190 table games, and the project also includes a riverfront entertainment venue, restaurants, a food hall and five bars. Rivers plans to open a temporary casino on The 78 site in Q2 2024, and the permanent location in Q4 2025.  

Even if the full project comes to fruition, Rivers 78 is projected to generate the smallest amount of annual city tax revenue at $174.2 million, by the city’s estimation — about $17 million less than Bally’s and $11 million less than Hard Rock.

HAPPENING NOW: City of Chicago Hosts Casino Community Engagement Meeting: Rivers 78

— Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) April 7, 2022

Following the community engagement meetings, the City will continue its discussions with each of the shortlisted teams. The community engagement and negotiations will provide the basis for the City’s selection of a winning team. The finalists will be evaluated with respect to the same core goals laid out in the initial RFP. 

Once a finalist is selected, a comprehensive host community agreement memorializing the agreed-upon terms will be prepared. The host community agreement will then be evaluated by an Aldermanic special committee. The committee will consist of all the Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen of City Council Committees as well as President Pro Tempore Alderman Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward. The Special Committee will be chaired by Alderman Tom Tunney, 44th Ward and vice chaired by Alderman Jason Ervin, 28th Ward. All of City Council will be involved in the process for the final recommendation. 

A winner of the casino license is not expected for another two months, Tunney said Thursday.

The formal development process will begin following City Council approval and approval from the Illinois Gaming Board, before the selected developer could set up a temporary casino while building a permanent facility.