Analysis: ‘Unique’ gaming opportunity in Chicago awaits casino developers

Analysis: ‘Unique’ gaming opportunity in Chicago awaits casino developers

  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports
April 24, 2021 9:00 AM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports

Casino resorts operating in major downtown cities are not unusual.

Detroit has three gaming properties, including the 400-room MGM Grand Detroit, which opened in July 1999. Ohio’s two major cities, Cleveland and Cincinnati, have been home to casinos for nearly a decade.

The 671-room Encore Boston Harbor opened in June 2019 in the town of Everett, roughly five miles across the Mystic River from downtown Boston.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Chicago is different.

“It’s unique,” said Union Gaming Group Managing Director Grant Govertsen, whose report last summer helped Chicago leaders map out the process for landing an integrated casino resort in the Windy City.

“It represents one of two large metro areas that are underpenetrated in terms of gaming,” Govertsen said, with the other location being Atlanta. He expects most of the major casino operators with Las Vegas addresses will answer Chicago’s request for proposals (RFP).

Chicago has two big benefits: It’s the third-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. with 9.5 million in population and it attracts some 60 million visitors annually. Govertsen said Chicago is distinctive compared to the Illinois gaming market as a whole, which includes 10 casinos and almost 38,000 video gaming machines in 7,200 locations. Gaming opportunities are prevalent, but the towns don’t have Chicago’s tourist draw.

Other major U.S. cities are flirting with the casino expansion process.

Las Vegas Sands hired a team of lobbyists in Texas and is investing millions in an advertising campaign to sway lawmakers into supporting gaming legislation, which could include Dallas. The company also lobbied lawmakers in New York, where efforts have slowed to move up the timeline for a Manhattan integrated resort ahead of the voter-mandated 2023 start date.

Those cities’ prospects are speculative. Chicago is real.

“We’re the best city in the country. We have so much to offer,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last week during a virtual press conference in response to a question from CDC Gaming Reports on the possible competition with Dallas and New York.

“Adding this gaming opportunity adds more jet fuel to what our (COVID-19) recovery will look like,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve done so much research and we know the lessons learned as well from those that failed. But Chicago is unique in what we have to offer.”

Lightfoot, who won election as Chicago’s 56th mayor in 2019, inherited the casino proposal from predecessor Rahm Emanuel. She had to take the issue back to the legislature that same year to get the proposed casino’s gaming tax rate reduced.

She said Illinois gaming regulators need the time and resources to move the development forward. “I’m impatient by nature. I like to get things done and quickly,” Lightfoot said. “We needed to wait for the moment, but now we’re full steam ahead.”

Chicago on Thursday released a nearly 90-page request for proposals, spelling out what the city is seeking from a developer looking to land the project. The RFPs are due Aug. 23 and the city hopes to designate a casino license holder by early next year. The integrated resort isn’t expected to open until 2025.

The downtown property will include a casino and non-gaming amenities, including 500 hotel rooms, convention and meeting space, restaurants and bars, and entertainment venues.

Chicago is not pushing any particular site, although locations near Lake Michigan’s waterfront, the McCormick Place convention complex, and Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, are in the mix.

The Chicago casino was part of the 2019 legislative package that saw Illinois lawmakers approve the nation’s largest gaming industry expansion to an existing market in more than a decade. Six other cities are getting casinos, including Waukegan, about an hour north of Chicago, and Rockford, a 90-minute drive to the west.

Also, in Northern Indiana, a $300 million Hard Rock-branded casino opens next month in Gary, which is 30 miles from Chicago. Wisconsin is also allowing the expansion of an Indian casino 90 minutes from Chicago.

Lightfoot is unfazed by competition.

“There’s no place in the Midwest that offers what we do,” Lightfoot said. “There’s no place else like Chicago and that’s why we get visitors from all over the world. We offer something that no one else does. We can’t control outside Chicago, but we have some of the best in the businesses looking at Chicago and choosing locations that maximize this opportunity.”

The selected operator will have the opportunity to run a temporary casino for up to 24 months until the permanent casino opens.

A similar setup took place in the 1990s in New Orleans, where a temporary casino was operated by Harrah’s while the permanent site for Harrah’s New Orleans was developed and opened in 1999.

“The bottom line is to make sure we get revenue as quickly as possible,” Lightfoot said. “I won’t predict what (the temporary casino) will look like.”

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at hstutz@cdcgaming.com. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.