McCormick Place casino proposal looks to change luck at ‘sparsely used’ Lakeside CenterMitchell Armentrouton November 3, 2021 at 11:50 pm

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Rivers Chicago McCormick casino, one of five proposals for the long-sought city gambling temple. | Provided by JAHN

The proposal — one of two Chicago casino bids backed by billionaire Neil Bluhm — calls for “significant capital improvements” to the aging facility, which has only hosted a handful of large shows over the past few years, but has the “perfect” dimensions for a casino, developers say.

McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center would become the “gem” of a south lakefront entertainment district under a proposal to transform the 50-year-old structure into a downtown mega-casino.

A group of developers who are already behind a $4 billion redevelopment of the former Michael Reese Hospital site near Bronzeville said Wednesday they’re ready to go all in with another billion-dollar investment to turn the “iconic” but “sparsely used” convention space into an “entertainment mecca.”

“For years, we’ve been talking about how do we revitalize this thing, even way, way, way before the casino was in the lexicon here,” said Scott Goodman, founding principal of Farpoint Development. “Bringing more and more people to the lakefront has always been a goal of ours, and we think this is something that will help do that.”

Goodman’s firm is partnered with McLaurin Development and the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives on the Lakeside Center proposal, which was one of five bids submitted to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office last week to launch the big-city casino that officials and developers alike have coveted for decades.

The developers say minority investors will have a 25% ownership stake.

Also in on the Lakeside Center proposal is billionaire casino mogul Neil Bluhm and his Rush Street Gaming company, which already runs Illinois’ most lucrative casino — Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — and which is hedging bets with different partners on a separate casino bid at another South Loop site.

“Clearly, [Bluhm’s] got competing interests because he’s in two bids, but we are very confident in our bid,” Goodman said. “We think that with all objectivity, we check as many boxes as are capable of being checked.”

Their Lakeside plan calls for “significant capital improvements” to the aging facility, which has only hosted a handful of large shows over the past few years, but has the “perfect” dimensions for a casino, Goodman said.

Sun-Times file
The McCormick Place Lakeside Center.

The so-called Rivers Chicago McCormick would include indoor and outdoor entertainment spaces plus bars and restaurants, as part of a roughly $1 billion plan that would create a “tremendous residual domino effect” of economic growth for the Cermak Road district near McCormick Place, developer Zeb McLaurin said.

The group said they’d add about 2,000 parking spots within the building, which is just south of Soldier Field. Whether the Chicago Bears stay there or take their flirtation with Arlington Heights to the next level with a suburban stadium “doesn’t have any effect on us one way or another,” Goodman said.

“We’d love for them to stay,” said Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives president David Doig, who previously served as the Chicago Park District superintendent under former Mayor Richard M. Daley at the time of the stadium’s controversial overhaul in 2002.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
David Doig, president of the Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, pictured in September.

Goodman said they would seek a “very long-term ground lease” lease for the property from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns McCormick Place.

The massive convention center, long floated as a viable casino site, is targeted in two of the five casino proposals submitted to Lightfoot’s office. Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corporation put in a bid centered at the truck marshaling yard south of McCormick Place, calling for $1.6 billion investments that include a luxury hotel, indoor and outdoor entertainment center, green space and fine dining.

A spokeswoman for the MPEA, a public-private partnership, said officials there have not yet “discussed any terms of use for our campus properties in relation to a proposed casino.”

Bally’s also submitted an alternate bid proposing to break ground at the Chicago Tribune printing plant site near Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street.

Bluhm’s second hand in the Chicago casino game is a partnership with development firm Related Midwest as Rivers 78 Gaming LLC. That proposal aims to break ground within the 62 vacant South Loop acres near Roosevelt Road and Clark Street. Specifics on that proposal have yet to be announced.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, pictured in March 2020.

Rush Street Gaming CEO Greg Carlin said in a statement through a spokesman that Bluhm’s company “is offering the city two distinct options on two outstanding sites, with two great local development teams, which take advantage of our expertise developing from the ground up and operating some of the most successful casinos in North America.”

The fifth Chicago casino bid comes from Florida-based gambling giant Hard Rock International, which identified its chosen site as the proposed One Central development that would sit just across Dusable Lake Shore Drive from Soldier Field. Representatives did not return requests for comment.

Lightfoot’s office has said it will create “a review committee made up of a cross-section of City departments” to recommend a bidder. Lightfoot will have the final call on who’s put up for City Council approval. The Illinois Gaming Board has the final say on issuing a license.

The mayor has said she expects the finished casino-resort to open by 2025.

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