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(Above) Rendering of proposed Bally’s casino along North Branch of Chicago River at Chicago & Halsted. Image provided by Bally’s/Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

Experts say the choice of the Bally site at the nearly impassable corner of Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street is likely the worst possible location for a successful, money-making casino to bail the city out of its pension debacle.

23-May-22 – Some experts are calling Bally’s River West – the much-ballyhooed site for Chicago’s $1.6 billion gaming extravaganza – Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s “casino-for-dummies.”

With the city drowning in $47 billion in pension fund debt, Mayor Lightfoot is desperate for gambling tax cash. The proposed Bally casino is projected to pump $200 million a year into city coffers when it opens in the first quarter of 2026. The Bally proposal also promises to utilize union labor and give the city another $4 million a year in additional funds.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

Bally also plans to open a temporary casino in the Medinah Temple building (left) at 600 North Wabash Avenue in the third quarter of 2023. That’s a crazy idea because of River North’s traffic congestion.

“Bally bought the deal with a $40 million upfront bribe,” observed Mr. Zak, a veteran professional gambler. “The Chicago & Halsted site is the worst possible place they could put it.”

This bustling intersection is boxed in by the Chicago River, bridges, and Metra railroad tracks – not an ideal site for a mega development. Traffic congestion on Chicago Avenue west of Halsted Street also includes a steady flow of trucks from a cement plant on Goose Island.

The Chicago Tribune’s 30-acre Freedom Center printing plant at 777 West Chicago Avenue currently occupies the proposed casino location along with the newspaper’s newsroom.

Mr. Zak, nicknamed Dog Daddy because of his great love for canines, resides in Old Town only a few blocks from Bally’s proposed River West site. He regularly commutes to Hard Rock Casino in Gary, Indiana, to gamble.

“The Hard Rock casino makes $1 million a day in profit,” said Mr. Zak, who is friendly with the casino’s management because of his status as a big-stakes player. “Assuming Bally can earn a similar daily profit when open and fully operational, they stole the deal for only $40 million – or 40 days of casino action. Mayor Lightfoot easily could have demanded a $100 million bribe up front.”

Lightfoot spun her roulette wheel while trying to choose between five proposals for the launch of a giant Chicago enterprise casino. The proposals came after lawmakers in Springfield changed the casino tax structure and passed a pile of chips to the gaming industry.

However, Mr. Zak – and this writer – agree that the only logical startup casino site is Lakeside Center – the original McCormick Place East – for an instant “pop-up” downtown casino that could raise millions in gaming tax dollars for the city by late 2022.

Lakeside Center (right), which looks a lot like an aircraft carrier, is anchored on the shore overlooking Lake Michigan.

Choose Chicago

Choose Chicago

Construction experts say Lakeside Center originally was designed and wired decades ago for a future casino, and there is plenty of nearby parking.

Before the pandemic, the building was only used about 10-20 times a year for gatherings – business that could easily be shifted to McCormick sites to the west.

In 2020, some $15 million in renovation upgrades were pumped into Lakeside Center to convert it to an emergency hospital for up to 2,500 COVID-19 patients.

Walsh Construction

Union tradesmen and women worked around the clock to install 100 new water lines, wiring 1,000 electrical outlets and more than 100 data lines to supply an electronic records system to accept and monitor patients.

Walsh Construction

The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for the work, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers supervised construction, so these funds really were a gift from Uncle Sam.

High-tech construction perks, along with other cosmetic upgrades, could create hundreds of jobs, and the work could create an instant gambling casino.

Move in 1,000 slots and video poker machines, add 200 manned gaming tables, toss in a few restaurants and bars, and Mayor Lightfoot’s cash register could start going ka-ching by late 2022.

The seldom-used, 50-year-old Lakeside Center has 583,000 square feet of exhibit space. It is located near 2,900 hotel rooms, designed for high-traffic events, and would help draw thousands of eager conventioneer gamblers.

However, to make Lakeside Center work – as a common sense, temporary casino – a two-year lease would have to be drafted between Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, managers of McCormick Place, and Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming. The company is headed by Chicago real estate developer Neil Bluhm, who owns four casinos, including Rivers Casino Des Plaines, the top grossing venue in Illinois.

Scott Goodman, principal of Chicago-based Farpoint Development, Rush Street Gaming’s partner, said Lakeside Center – also known as Rivers Chicago at McCormick – is “a perfect adjunct to what’s already there, infrastructure, parking, and access.”

And there are no traffic problems because Lakeside Center is conveniently situated on Lake Shore Drive.

Mr. Zak and many aldermen, including 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins, believe the best site for construction of the new, permanent casino is The 78, a 62-acre nearly-vacant mega-development site on the Chicago River in the South Loop.

Rush Street Gaming also has worked with master developer Related Midwest on its proposed new-construction casino called Rivers 78 Gaming (right) on the site of The 78.

Rush Street Gaming

Rush Street Gaming

“Going forward, any urban planner with vision can see that the site of The 78 is the best choice for location of the new casino for future decades,” Mr. Zak said.

Whether you like it or not, casino gambling is becoming a national sport in America. Commercial casinos in the U.S. won more than $5.3 billion from gamblers in March 2022, the best single-month take ever. The previous record month was July 2021, when the take was $4.92 billion. The numbers do not include tribal casinos, which report their income separately and are expected to post similar results.