CHICAGO - A clout-heavy group of casino developers on Thursday pitched South Loop residents on their plan to build a brand new "neighborhood from the ground up" that they say will create a new "epicenter of Chicago tourism."
But some of their potential neighbors argued that would be just the problem.
The proposal spearheaded by billionaire casino tycoon Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming and Chicago megadeveloper Related Midwest has its sights set 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 — and many in the community say they want the casino proposal to meet the same fate.
Dozens of South Loop residents grilled the so-called "Rivers 78" casino team during a town hall meeting held at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Dorin Forum, in the city’s final airing of public grievances on the three bids Mayor Lori Lightfoot is weighing to take on the city’s long-sought casino project.
They 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 hopefuls.
"A casino in my neighborhood is not going to do anything for me," an 11-year-old South Looper said. "How can I feel safer as a kid when you build a casino as my neighbor?"
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 78 bid is up against two other finalists vying for Lightfoot’s seal of approval: Hard Rock Chicago, which wants to break ground across the street from Soldier Field, and Bally’s Corporation, which is eying the Chicago Tribune printing plant site at Halsted Street at Chicago Avenue.
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 Related Midwest president Curt Bailey has dubbed "an Eiffel Tower for Chicago."
"We’re creating an entire neighborhood from the ground up," Bailey said. "We’re shifting the epicenter of Chicago’s tourism south."
They also say they’ll be good neighbors with the Discovery Partners Institute, a massive University of Illinois research center that is scheduled to break ground on the south end of the plot next year.
In a city report issued last month when Lightfoot narrowed down the field of casino finalists, officials noted that the group hadn’t yet shown evidence they could finance the observation tower, which the city thinks would result in "a significantly diminished casino project."
But 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.
The 78 bid also presents a potential problem of political optics for Lightfoot.
Bluhm — who founded Illinois’ most lucrative existing casino, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — and his family have close ties to the mayor. Bluhm’s daughters donated more than $212,000 to Lightfoot’s first mayoral campaign. One of them, Leslie Bluhm, who went to law school with Lightfoot, co-hosted a campaign fundraiser and remains close friends with the mayor.
Additionally, part of the 78 site is still owned by Nahdmi Auchi, an arms dealer who is prohibited from entering the United States because he was convicted of taking illegal commissions in a French oil deal. Auchi was a partner with Tony Rezko — the political fixer who was convicted of kickback schemes under disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The mayor has put together a City Council committee to narrow the field down to one finalist within the next few months. That bidder would then have to apply for state approval.