Emanuel wants a casino for Chicago, but where would it go?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Credit: iStock)

State lawmakers and Chicago mayors have spent decades floating the concept of a casino in the city that would generate tax money for education, infrastructure and pension obligations.

Next year, leaders say, it really could happen.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave the idea one last push before he leaves office during an address to the City Council on Wednesday, when he laid out a list of proposals aimed at helping the city meet its pension obligations. They included a constitutional amendment to change the state’s pension systems, legalizing marijuana and bringing casino gambling to Chicago.

“We are looking at the impact of a Chicago casino on job creation, local economic development, tourism, tax revenue and city services,” Emanuel said during the speech, adding he’s working with state legislators to get the proposal through the General Assembly when it reconvenes next month.

The effort will count a supporter in Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker, who said during his campaign that gaming has been a “revenue generator” in other places and is worth considering for Chicago, the only municipality where it’s not allowed right now under state law.

State Rep. Robert Rita, a south suburban Democrat, has spent more than five years cobbling together disparate groups trying to bring casinos to more areas in Illinois, including Chicago

“We know we have renewed interest in a gaming package, but the devil is in the details,” Ryan Keith, a spokesperson for Rita, said Wednesday. “Who owns it, who manages it, the location, how the revenue gets split up — all of that is to be determined.”

The latest version of Rita’s bill would allow a land-based casino and a riverboat casino in Chicago, along with riverboats in five other cities across the state. A temporary facility could be established in Chicago while a permanent facility is being built.

Previously discussed sites for a Chicago casino include Navy Pier, McCormick Place and the Thompson Center in the Loop, Keith said.

“In some cases it’s a matter of finding existing sites and rehabbing them, and in other cases it’s adding on land in well-known places,” Keith said.

Under Rita’s bill, the mayor of Chicago would appoint a five-member board to choose the private operators who would manage the casino. The revenue would be split between the state, which would use it to fund education, pensions and infrastructure; and the city, which would use the money to pay for police and firefighter pensions.

University of Illinois at Chicago political professor Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman, called the casino proposal “an idea whose time has come.”

“The state and city would have to compromise over the details, but they’ll be under pressure to do it because they’re both in desperate need of pension money,” Simpson said. “You’d have to figure out parking and logistics, but it should be an attractive enough proposition for the people who own the casinos to be able to solve those problems.”

Simpson pointed to 601W Companies’ Old Main Post Office redevelopment, Related Midwest’s  “The 78” campus and the former site of the Michael Reese Hospital as potential homes for the new casino. The city or state could lease from the private developers under a franchise agreement, he said.

Developer Steve Fifield, CEO of Fifield Companies, also said he expects the casino discussion to center around The 78 and the Michael Reese site, which the city is negotiating to sell to a team of developers led by Farpoint Development.

Fifield said a casino in either location in the South Loop “benefits the South Side, enhances McCormick Place appeal for conventions as well as (brings) much needed entry and mid-level jobs.”

But the city would have to amend its Planned Development for The 78 in order to allow a casino operator on the grounds. In its current form, the document does not list gambling among the uses permitted on the site.

And Farpoint director of development Elle Ramel threw cold water on the prospect of building a casino on the 100-acre Reese site, which the development team is rebranding as the “Burnham Lakefront.”

“There are no plans or future plans to put a casino on the Burnham Lakefront site,” Ramel said Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Related Midwest declined to comment, and a representative for 601W Companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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