As Bally’s Prepares For Chicago Casino Construction, What Obstacles Remain?

Written By Phil West on June 21, 2024
A woman looking at a series of obstacles, signifying the path facing Bally's Chicago.

Bally’s is about to begin its massive and ambitious casino construction plan, estimated to cost as much as $1.7 billion.

It begins by demolishing the Tribune Publishing complex at 700 W. Chicago Ave. and erecting what would be the largest Illinois casino.

However, doubts loom from some noteworthy observers, including a concerned mayor and a gaming industry expert who thinks the obstacles facing Bally’s might be insurmountable.

Questions raised about casino project’s funding

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson addressed concerns about whether Bally’s could complete construction, initially slated to start July 5, amid reports of an $800 million funding gap.

Johnson said, “I wish I could say something definitive today. I know our team is working with ownership to figure [it] out like we figured out some of the other things that I’ve inherited. It just has to make absolute sense. … I think that one’s still to be determined, to be perfectly frank with you.”

Adding to doubts about Bally’s follow-through, Alan Woinski, CEO of Gaming USA Corp., voiced skepticism to the Chicago Sun-Times last week. He said,

“Let’s say Bally’s does find the money, and it’s … at a very, very high interest rate for the financing. It just makes it that much harder for that property to achieve profitability. It doesn’t help anyone. The one thing I’m certain of is we’re not going to have that full project by the end of 2026. … Whether there’s something in the permanent spot by 2026 — that’s going to be determined. I would not be surprised if we wind up with, ‘Let’s just get a better temporary casino. Build it out. It’s not going to cost as much. It’s the next best thing.’”

Woinski added that while the demolition phase should be able to proceed as planned, Bally’s would be better off securing project funding before proceeding with construction.

“I hope they don’t put a shovel in the ground,” he said. “Demolition is one thing. There’s nothing wrong with clearing the site and getting ready. But I really hope they don’t begin construction without getting the remaining financing. I’ve seen that way too many times in way too many locations over the past 30 years in this business.”

Construction traffic, location are also concerns

According to Block Club Chicago, the Tribune has already moved its publishing operations and the building will be fully vacated by next month.

This will lead to what the Chicago Department of Public Health terms an “environmentally complex” demolition, requiring it “to review and inspect the site for potential health and environmental impacts” before any permitting happens. Should the permits come through, the demolition is expected to take five months, even with workers on an 8 a.m.-to-8 p.m. schedule seven days a week.

That article also noted that “trucks can enter and exit the site 9 a.m.-4 p.m.,” and as a traffic concern for its neighbors, “as many as 20-30 truckloads will pass through daily during the first six to eight weeks of demolition.”

The Chicago Sun-Times story mentioned another obstacle that’s recently surfaced: “The gaming giant still hasn’t figured out where to put its hotel tower — turns out, the location in its original plan would damage city water pipes.”

Mark Wong, Bally’s Chicago general manager, responded to concerns by stating, “Our commitment to this project has never wavered, and we are on track for a September 2026 opening,” adding that Bally’s is currently preparing for demolition by capping water and electrical lines at the site.

Contractually, Bally’s must spend a minimum of $1.34 billion on the project and had only spent $2.4 million as of several days ago. Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim and Standard General, the private equity fund he established, have offered to take Bally’s private at $15 per share to help raise the capital for the project. Still, investors have pushed back on that plan as Wall Street credit rating agencies have downgraded the casino company.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Phil West

Phil West is a longtime journalist based in Austin, Texas, whose bylines have appeared in The Daily Dot, Nautilus, Pro Soccer USA, Howler, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Chronicle. He has also written two books about soccer.

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