After months of pushback from neighbors of Bally’s proposed casino site along the Chicago River, Mayor Lori Lightfoot Thursday unveiled a 19-member advisory group to “allow community stakeholders of all kinds to have a meaningful impact before, during, and after the casino’s construction.”
The Casino Community Advisory Council, which will be overseen by the city’s planning and transportation departments, the mayor’s office and the chief financial officer, “will meet quarterly to discuss the project and address issues raised by community members,” the mayor’s office said in a release.
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“The primary focus of this Casino CAC is to secure community input on the development of the entire permanent site; however, the Casino CAC will also consider issues related to the operation of the temporary site as they are applicable to the future permanent casino project,” the release said.
Bally’s proposal still needs to be approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, but the company has made initial moves to set up its temporary casino in River North, with hopes to open in the second quarter of 2023. The company hopes to open the permanent location in early 2026.
Community engagement around the proposed site — at what is now the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant — has been at times testy, with neighbors raising concerns about crime, traffic, safety, noise and the use of the Chicago River, and other Chicagoans worried about promised job creation and gambling addiction. Local Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, and others have also come out against Bally’s plans to set up its temporary site at the Medinah Temple.
An artist’s rendering shows the proposed $1.74 billion Bally’s Chicago casino, hotel and entertainment complex at the site of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, located on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street. (Bally’s/SCB)
Several aldermen also opposed the creation of a special City Council casino committee stacked with Lightfoot allies that would get to vote on any zoning, licensing, public health, traffic and financial issues related to the casino, which would normally go to various council committees tasked with those specific concerns. But the plans received backing of the City Council in May in a 41-7 vote.
This week, Crain’s Chicago Business reported the Washington, D.C.,-based Stop Predatory Gambling and Illinois Churches in Action wrote to the state’s gaming board to urge them to complete a “full and thorough investigation” into Bally’s application, which they said had “major deficiencies” and a “lack of candor.”
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The River North Residents Association, which represents nearly 23,000 people living near the proposed permanent casino site, surveyed neighbors and found 86% of 2,311 respondents were opposed to the casino.
The association’s Robin Schabes, volunteer chair of the development and land use committee, is now a member of the advisory council, as are members of other neighborhood groups: Maurice Edwards of the Cabrini-Green LAC Community Corporation, Julie Darling of the West Loop Community Organization and John Bosca of Neighbors of River West.
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Fifteen other “issue experts” also made the membership roll, including officials from Urban Rivers, the Active Transportation Alliance, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Metropolitan Planning Council. The roll could change: Lightfoot’s office says membership could shift “to address additional concerns of the community.”
The River North Residents Association’s president, Brian Israel, said that since the City Council’s May vote, his organization has “focused on promoting a list of recommendations intended to improve the project and reduce potentially negative impacts on the surrounding community, the citizens of Chicago, and the natural environment.”
Israel added: “We take the mayor at her word that the CCAC will ‘create a tangible space for this important engagement and allow community stakeholders of all kinds to have a meaningful impact before, during, and after the casino’s construction.’ We’re pleased that the administration remains open to dialogue and look forward to a productive process.”
In a release from the mayor’s office, Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim said the company is “committed to being good neighbors and corporate citizens, and we look forward to working with all members of the Chicago Casino Advisory Council.”