Let the casino games begin, Chicago.
The Illinois Gaming Board unanimously approved a “determination of preliminary suitability” Thursday for Bally’s Chicago, setting the table to launch the city’s first casino this summer.
The precursor to final licensing will allow Bally’s to open its temporary casino at Medinah Temple, pending a successful practice gaming session. Bally’s is building out and staffing up the landmark River North building, with plans to welcome Chicago gamblers by August.
“We are excited to be part of this historic moment to open the first casino in the city of Chicago,” Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim said at the hearing Thursday. “It’s a pretty weighty thing. And this is going to allow us to keep our many commitments to the city and the community that we’ve made.”
Medinah Temple will serve as a temporary casino for up to three years while the permanent facility is built on the site of the Freedom Center printing plant. The ornate 111-year-old amphitheater is being retrofitted to accommodate more than 800 gaming positions, restaurants and a bar.
The remodeling work at the three-story temporary casino is essentially done, with gaming equipment installation set to begin in the coming days, the company said.
The two-hour board meeting Thursday was the culmination of a lengthy vetting process and a multiyear quest to land a casino in Chicago.
Rhode Island-based Bally’s won a heated competition last year to build a $1.74 billion casino at the 30-acre site of the Chicago Tribune printing plant in River West. The entertainment complex will include an exhibition hall, 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, 10 restaurants and 4,000 gaming positions — by far the largest casino in the state.
Bally’s filed its Chicago casino license application with the Illinois Gaming Board in August, with initial plans to open a temporary facility at Medinah Temple by June 2023. The permanent casino is not expected to open before 2026.
Last month, Tribune Publishing reached an agreement with Bally’s to vacate the printing plant by July 2024, with plans to relocate operations to the Daily Herald printing plant in Schaumburg, which it purchased for an undisclosed price.
Bally’s became Tribune Publishing’s landlord in November when it bought the Freedom Center site from Nexstar Media for $200 million. Within days, Bally’s executed a sale-leaseback on the land with Chicago-based Oak Street Real Estate Capital, raising up to $500 million to help build the casino complex.
The selection of Bally’s as the Chicago casino operator has not been without opposition. In February, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called Stop Predatory Gambling, sent a letter to the Gaming Board and Gov. J.B. Pritzker expressing concerns about everything from the city’s casino vetting process to the choice of Medinah as the temporary location.
“The idea that Chicago would embrace and partner with this operator (Bally’s), it’s going to rank among the worst decisions the city has ever made,” Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, told the Tribune Thursday.
But at least one neighborhood group attended the Gaming Board meeting to express support for the Bally’s Chicago casino.
John Bosca, president of the Neighbors of River West, said Bally’s has been engaged and cooperative in addressing concerns with his group. The casino’s success, he said, could benefit the entire city.
“We realize that our pension fund needs as much help as they can get,” Bosca said. “We have holes, we need to support our men and women, our teachers, our first responders, our police as well as our fire. So if Bally’s can be as successful as we hope that they will be, it will help fill that gap.”
While it plans to open the permanent casino in 2026, Bally’s Chicago set its sights — at the urging of the city — on getting the dice rolling at the temporary casino this summer. In May, Bally’s put out the help wanted sign for Medinah, looking to fill more than 700 positions at the temporary casino.
After installing the slot machines and table games, Bally’s will need to do a test run of its gaming operations before the board signs off on a temporary operating permit to open the doors to customers. Bally’s is hoping to be up and running by August, the company said.
Over the years, the Medinah Temple has hosted everything from concerts to the annual Shrine Circus. In 2003, the Moorish-style amphitheater was redeveloped as a Bloomingdale’s home furnishings store but has been vacant for more than two years after Macy’s sold the building.
The city steered Bally’s toward using the Medinah site for its temporary casino, despite the lack of on-site parking. A traffic study commissioned last year by Bally’s said there are 5,000 parking spaces in nearby garages, with nearly 1,000 spaces available most evenings.
The temporary casino has a maximum capacity of 1,500 patrons, with the majority likely to arrive by car, resulting in a peak demand for 500 additional spaces, according to the study. To keep traffic flowing, Bally’s has committed to employing traffic controllers for at least the first 90 days of operation.
When Illinois enacted the Riverboat Gambling Act in 1990, casinos were not only required to be located on a river, but had to set sail during gambling sessions. Over the years, the seafaring requirements were dramatically eased, such that by 2011, Rivers Casino Des Plaines, the state’s 10th casino, was built over a shallow pit of water near the Tri-State Tollway.
In 2019, the state shifted to allow land-based casinos as part of its sweeping gambling expansion bill, the same measure that enabled sports betting and six new casinos to open across the state. Three of those casinos have begun gaming operations.
The Hard Rock Rockford, which opened in a temporary facility in 2021, was fully licensed in January 2022 and is building a permanent casino on the site of the former Clock Tower Resort. American Place in Waukegan opened a temporary casino in February.
On Thursday, the Gaming Board awarded a four-year owners license to American Place, and a 12-month extension for both American Place and Hard Rock Rockford, allowing them to operate at their temporary locations for three years while the permanent casinos are built.
The Golden Nugget Danville opened with a temporary operating permit in a permanent facility May 26. Wind Creek is building a permanent casino in the south suburbs, while Walker’s Bluff is building one in southern Illinois.
Two racinos — casinos at horse racing tracks — are also in the developmental pipeline at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville. Arlington International Racecourse owners passed on the opportunity before shuttering the track and selling it to the Chicago Bears.
Last year, the state’s 11 operating casinos generated nearly $1.35 billion in adjusted gross receipts, topped by Rivers Casino at nearly $529 million, according to a Gaming Board report.
The Chicago casino is allowed twice as many gaming positions as any other in Illinois. It also carries the highest casino tax rate in the state at about 40% of adjusted gross receipts.
A signature initiative for former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, which selected Bally’s Chicago over four competing bids, the casino is projected to generate $805.6 million in annual adjusted gross receipts — the money kept after winnings are paid out — by 2028.
That would create nearly $246 million in annual revenue for the city by year six — assuming the permanent casino opens as scheduled in 2026.
The temporary casino is projected to generate more than $100 million in adjusted gross receipts this year. Including a one-time $40 million upfront payment from Bally’s, the city expects to receive nearly $70 million from the casino in 2023.
Once a Chicago-based casino operator, the Bally’s name was purchased in 2020 by Twin River Holdings, a company controlled by New York hedge fund Standard General. The company has assembled a chain of 15 casinos across 10 states, including Bally’s Quad Cities in Rock Island, which it acquired for $120 million in 2021.
On Thursday, the Gaming Board also granted a four-year license renewal for Bally’s Quad Cities.