How Lori Lightfoot got Chicago that elusive casino

Questions of location and revenue remain as Illinois passes a huge gambling expansion bill.

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Casinos were on former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Springfield wish list for years, and they were Rahm Emanuel’s top legislative priority throughout his two terms in office, all to no avail. Then Lori Lightfoot became mayor and within two weeks the state legislature passes a huge gambling expansion bill that includes the long-illusory Chicago casino. What gives?

The difference was having a governor who also made it a priority — and who packaged it with a $45 billion infrastructure program, said Doug Dobmeyer, a longtime casino opponent. He pointed out that Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his family have extensive investments in the casino industry.

Dobmeyer is mostly retired now, but for thirty years he was spokesperson for the Task Force to Oppose Gambling in Chicago that kept a casino out of the city. I called Dobmeyer and told him that maybe he shouldn’t have retired so soon.

While Lightfoot wanted a city-operated casino, Dobmeyer said it’s better that state regulators will have oversight — and that the city won’t be on the hook for construction costs. But he added, “I think we’re going to find that the era of casinos has come and gone.”

In the past three decades, 1,500 casinos have opened around the country. They’re no longer a draw for tourism. (Where they do attract tourist dollars, it’s at the expense of restaurants and theaters.) Job creation is likely to be offset by job loss in other entertainment venues, according to a Northern Illinois University analysis.

Declining revenues

In Illinois and nationally, tax revenues from casinos have declined, even as the number of casinos has increased. With a new casino, there’s generally a small boom followed by a decline, according to a Citylab overview: “The public returns from gambling decline over time—often quite fast … The results are short-run yields, longer-run deterioration.”

A few years ago a researcher at the state legislature’s Commission on Forecasting and Government Accountability told me that if Chicago did get a casino, revenues would decline over the years. There’s competition from video poker and now from sports betting. Another reason: the casino-going population is aging, and younger folks don’t gamble as much.

Casino revenues also come disproportionately from low-income communities. After Lightfoot campaigned promising to stop soaking the poor with fines and fees, her first major revenue measure is decidedly regressive.

Location, location

In the next couple of months, a feasibility study will be conducted, and an impact study will be done to determine where to site a casino. Pritzker says it shouldn’t be located downtown or near McCormick Place, and he’s right about that: “Casinos are generally also large footprint buildings that are inefficient users of downtown land and require vast amounts of parking, much like a suburban mall,” according to urbanologist Aaron Renn. And convention planners, who pay big bucks to have an audience for their exhibits, don’t want competition across the street.

But other locations have their own issues. Community groups around the Michael Reese site on the south lakefront are opposed to putting a casino there, and 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King says “the community has consistently opposed a casino on the site.” And putting a casino on the far Southeast Side, as former Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed in the waning days of his administration, would be the most regressive option, foregoing tourist dollars and targeting South Side retirees who now frequent Indiana hot spots.

It may be cynical to assume that the consultants will pick whichever site the powers that be prefer – though that’s exactly what happened with the Lucas Museum Site Selection Task Force, and with a previous study of the Michael Reese site done for the city. Who wants to bet they’ll decide there’s no good place for a casino in Chicago?