Eye On Illinois: Far too early to buy hype on Chicago casino projections

Show us the money.

Last week the Chicago City Council voted, 41-7, in favor of a plan to let Bally’s build a $1.7 billion River West casino complex.

Optimists’ surface reactions include belief this investment would represent a signifiant counterbalance to loss of other business opportunities, or a narrow version of the same argument targeted at years of gambling revenue bleeding to Wisconsin and Indiana.

But as with any such major development, the reality is much harder to discern. While it’s somewhat simple to track the actual cost of building a casino, hotel and entertainment venue, the impact of that work and those jobs on the local economy must be filtered through any development incentives, tax rebates and so on, all of which is a different puzzle altogether from the ongoing financial effects being used to sell the idea as a win-win for the city and state.

A Chicago casino is much more than a city issue. Not just because the Illinois Gaming Board can stop the proposal from proceeding, but because Springfield will collect its share of fees and a city casino will undoubtedly change the climate at the state’s other gambling outfits.

Part of the push to approve Bally’s included claims the casino could generate $200 million for the city. Elected officials already have that money targeted for gaping holes in pension funds, and it’s easy to see state leaders following a similar playbook. New money to solve old problems is a fantastic solution when it works, but if waiting for fulfillment of that promise means doing nothing to meaningfully address the problem in the short term, we might be setting up for an even bigger disaster should those projections fall short – or not materialize.

This isn’t to be read as outright opposition to the casino plan. It’s hard to look sideways at 3,000 construction gigs and 3,000 permanent casino jobs, especially if the city can win some sort of assurances on wages and benefits. But the larger the project, the more chances for corruption and disappointments. In order to truly get people on board, Bally’s, city and state officials will have to be as up front as possible about the dollars and sense of it all, with as many assurances as possible for protecting any public investment.

In the meantime, voters should be wary of politicians who talk about any such revenue as a given, especially if any budget pledges rest on projections. Illinois has made good money on legalized recreational marijuana, but it’s still a program plagued with inefficiency and broken promises.

This might be a good deal for Illinois. It might be a disaster. The house always wins – the state not so much.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at