Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she tried for the city-owned casino her predecessors favored, but ultimately agreed to a privately owned facility more than triple the size of existing Illinois casinos to get the help Chicago desperately needs to bankroll police and fire pensions.
“It’s not that I didn’t [insist on municipal ownership]. We tried, but it was very clear that was a proposal that wasn’t going to make its way through the General Assembly,” she said. […]
“Chicago is the economic center of the state. But the dynamics built up over many decades [that] Chicago can’t be treated differently or in a special way by members of the General Assembly. … Particularly for people Downstate, they’ve got to go home to their constituents,” Lightfoot said.
“The legislative process is about compromise. We were able to get an important marker down to start the process for a Chicago casino. … People have been talking about a Chicago casino since casino gambling came to this state almost 30 years ago. This is the first time we’ve actually got concrete steps in the right direction to make that hope a reality.”
Unlike previous proposals, this will not be a city-owned venture (though Chicago is set to get a third of the casino’s adjusted gross receipts, so it’s in the city’s interests for any eventual operator to succeed).
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday that’s at the city’s request, though he backs the decision because he believes a “business-oriented partner” will “make it a more effective endeavor.”
* The Reader’s Deanna Isaacs tried to get to the bottom of this discrepancy…
So I called Lightfoot’s office to ask for an explanation. Deputy communications director Lauren Huffman responded with a written statement that ducked the question but made the point that a casino “will create a new revenue stream and will allow us to shore up underfunded police and fire pensions.” She thought maybe I should ask the bill’s sponsors.
In the Illinois House, that would be 28th District rep Robert Rita. His answer came from spokesman Ryan Keith, who told me Rita himself had proposed a city- or state-owned casino in the past, but, in this instance, “I think they just decided it was cleanest and simplest to do it the way they do all the other casinos”—that is, with private owners.
Who decided? “The negotiators,” Keith said, “representatives from all the different legislative caucuses, the governor’s office. The city obviously was involved.”
Northeastern Illinois University economics professor Michael Wenz, who studies gambling as an economic development strategy, says that, compared to past Illinois casino deals, the city did well. “A third of AGR [adjusted gross revenue] is a good deal,” Wenz told me. “They can do that without having to worry about the costs, without having to worry about anything. And it’ll be wildly profitable.”
Casino revenue has been flat or even down recently, cannibalized by the spread of video gambling, but Wenz says it’s reasonable to expect that a well-located city casino could do three times what Rivers Casino in Des Plaines does in volume. Figures from the Illinois Gaming Board show that Rivers’s AGR in 2018 was $441 million.