Chicago is one step closer to a potential big revenue boost and achieving a goal that has eluded local mayors for decades: its first casino.

A Chicago casino study in summer 2019 pointed to the merits of a downtown location close to hotels and other attractions, instead of in outlying neighborhoods that out-of-towners with money to spend might deem unsafe. But the same study also argued that the project could fail to attract developers because the original tax structure lawmakers approved was “very onerous” and would have left razor-thin profit margins for the potential owner.

Here’s how the whole process unfolded.

City officials are sifting through the bids, including one from Hard Rock International that would set the gambling emporium in a massive mixed-use project, One Central, which developers hope to build over train tracks west of Soldier Field. City Hall staff members are tasked with recommending to the mayor which casino plan she should present to aldermen for approval.

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Chicago officials laid out a process of community input and quick City Council approval of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s preferred casino plan, saying all five bids are on equal footing despite community opposition to one and questions about state financing for another.

Lightfoot plans to select the operator and location of a Chicago casino in “early 2022,” officials said.

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“Big changes can be made,” said Curt Bailey, president of Related Midwest, the developer behind the proposed Rivers 78 casino in the South Loop. “We want to be great neighbors and want the neighbors to want to be around us.”

The effort to win over neighbors and the mayor’s office before the city’s anticipated early summer decision to forward a proposal to the Illinois Gaming Board for final approval has already led to some changes.

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As Chicago nears a decision on a winning casino bid, there is a lot at stake for the city, which could boost its financial fortunes and help plug its public pension funding holes with upward of $150 million in annual casino tax revenue, according to projections.

But with three of the five proposals planning to use the McCormick Place campus, there may be a wild card in the works. McCormick Place has yet to strike a deal with the city or the developers, and is something less than all in on repurposing any of its convention center facilities as a casino.

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The rejected proposals for what is expected to be Illinois’ largest gambling establishment include a $1.3 billion Rivers Chicago McCormick bid to redevelop Lakeside Center, which developers touted as an opportunity to repurpose and renovate the 50-year-old steel-and-glass exhibition hall. McCormick Place said it has 235 events scheduled there that could not be rescheduled without a replacement.

The city also turned down Bally’s proposal for a $1.6 billion casino at the McCormick Place Truck Marshaling Yards, a 28-acre freight staging area at 31st Street and Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The proposed site not only faced opposition from nearby Bronzeville residents, but was also committed to another developer by McCormick Place until 2023.

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The city, which is banking on a casino to generate $200 million in annual tax revenue to plug its public pension funding holes, plans to submit its choice to the Illinois Gaming Board for approval in time to include upfront payments from the winning bidder in the 2023 fiscal budget this fall, said Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, chairman of the the Special Committee on the Chicago Casino.

“We would like to be able to, hopefully, within the next month, get narrowed down to one and then obviously go through this process with the nominee,” Tunney said April 25.

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If Rivers 78 gets the nod as the Chicago casino, developers plan to launch the temporary facility in an old-school vessel: a renovated riverboat docked at the South Loop site along the Chicago River.

The riverboat, which holds about 1,000 gaming positions, could be up and running within six months of approval, providing a temporary “mini-Rivers” casino on the river while the permanent facility is built, Tim Drehkoff, the new CEO of Rush Street Gaming, said during a community engagement meeting April 7.

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Bally’s plans to use a former Tribune Publishing warehouse once earmarked for a residential and office development as its temporary casino while the Freedom Center is demolished and the permanent facility is built.

That was perhaps the biggest takeaway as Bally’s met with hundreds of skeptical River West neighbors inside the vacant 120,000-square-foot building on April 6 to pitch a proposed $1.74 billion casino, hotel and entertainment complex that would supplant the nearby Freedom Center printing plant, if approved as the Chicago casino.

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While the city is doing its best to keep a poker face, Bally’s CEO Soo Kim landed at Midway Airport Wednesday afternoon for a meeting with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to ostensibly finalize her choice as Chicago’s casino.

The meeting is expected to lead to a formal announcement by the city, ending a long vetting process and starting a new phase as Lightfoot seeks to win over neighbors and aldermen for Bally’s proposed plan to replace the Chicago Tribune printing plant in River West with a casino complex.

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The Bally’s proposal to build a $1.74 billion casino complex in River West is expected to generate $200 million in annual tax revenue for the city, transform a 30-acre industrial site into a bustling entertainment destination and send the Chicago Tribune printing plant packing from its longtime home along the Chicago River.

For Soo Kim, the 47-year-old chairman of Bally’s and founding partner of New York hedge fund Standard General, the casino company’s largest shareholder, staking turf in Chicago will be no less transformative.

“This matters to our company,” Kim said Friday. “This is something that will be our most important property by far.”

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