The McCormick Place CEO on Tuesday raised potential obstacles to casino proposals involving convention center ownership and said changes to state law may be required before his sites can host gambling.
Three of the five casino deals the city is evaluating call for using part of the convention complex, either Lakeside Center, McCormick Place North or its truck yards south of the exhibit halls. Any change in their use would disrupt operations and could cost Chicago convention reservations, said Larita Clark, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
Lakeside Center, the oldest building in McCormick Place, has been overshadowed by additions to the complex and its occupancy lags behind the others. But in his report to the MPEA board, Clark said it still drew significant business. Its replacement would require a new billion-dollar hall that would take about six years to build, she said.
Lakeside Center “doesn’t sit empty,” she said. Clark said it has 253 events scheduled through 2035, worth $13.8 billion in economic impact, in addition to housing mechanical systems serving the entire campus. “The reality is that if we lost the Lakeside Center, we would need to replace 600,000 square feet and all critical infrastructure,” she said.
Clark reported that McCormick Place North was booked near peak levels in the years leading up to the pandemic that shut down most convention business. Yards, she said, reduce truck congestion and help exhibitors and contractors set up and tear down items quickly. “In 2019, 35,000 trucks used the rail yards and their proximity to our campus is a competitive advantage,” Clark said.
His remarks are a challenge to all but two casino offerings. The only proposals that wouldn’t hit McCormick Place are a Bally bid for the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center print site, 777 W. Chicago Ave., or Chicago tycoon Neil Bluhm’s Rivers Casino that sits on 62 acres vacant southwest of Roosevelt Road and Clark. Street.
Another Bally proposal would place the casino in the Rail Yards, while a second Rivers plan would place it in the Lakeside Center. An offer from Hard Rock suggests Lakeside Center or McCormick Place North as temporary sites until a permanent site can be completed nearby at a development site known as One Central.
In an interview, Clark said she wasn’t trying to eliminate bids but to “get the facts out” to prepare her board for the city hall’s selection of a casino site. His agency is not involved in this choice.
“We don’t say ‘no way’ about anything. We’re just saying there are other considerations and there’s information that we don’t have right now,” she said.
A spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not respond directly to Clark’s comments, saying only, “The city continues to review all bidder proposals on the Chicago casino.”
The MPEA has a nine-member council, with four members each chosen by the governor and the mayor. Members appoint their own chair. He did not vote Tuesday on any casino-related issue.
Chairman Jeffrey Bethke said the board didn’t want to pick a casino winner but assess the potential impact on convention customers. Its facilities, which are among the alternatives to casinos, have “real value” in attracting meetings and trade shows, he said.
MPEA staff told the board that any changes to introduce gambling could require the legislature to change the primary state law governing its affairs, the MPEA Act. Changes may also be needed in the state law governing its lease of Chicago Park District land, staffers said.
They also noted that the Lakeside Center should be used for the public good due to its location. Conservationists have halted further lakeside developments citing a legal precedent called the public trust doctrine.
A spokesperson for Rivers Casino’s bid involving Lakeside Center noted that his team was not authorized to communicate with the MPEA prior to the submission of their bid and “anticipated comments that have been raised.”
The group, which previously described the aging Lakeside Center as ‘sparsely used’, said on Tuesday it was ‘confident that our plan addresses these issues in a way that will positively impact McCormick Place and provide direct benefit to the MPEA. , the city and the state.
They say they will save the MPEA nearly $1 billion by covering deferred maintenance costs, paying rent of $15 million a year, and “eliminating the operating loss on Lakeside Center.” “.
“Only Rivers Chicago McCormick advances the public interest by providing an additional benefit to taxpayers on top of the gambling revenue that any casino will bring to the city and state. No other candidate does this,” spokesman Eric Herman said in an email. “We look forward to partnering with MPEA to create a bespoke solution that meets all of their needs.”
A Bally spokeswoman declined to comment.