Bally’s Chicago Traffic Impact Study Raises Major Questions

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Casino opponents have criticized a study assessing the traffic impact of a temporary Bally’s Corporation casino in the neighborhood around its proposed location.

Construction of Bally’s new downtown casino in River West won’t be complete until 2026. In the meantime, the Company wants to open a temporary location at Medinah Temple in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Bally’s commissioned the study from V3 Companies and Fish Transportation Group. V3 released the study on July 7, 2022, and subsequently updated it on September 22. It concludes that Medinah Temple would:

… be a very complimentary land use in the area generating a cross-traffic capture of patrons between the temporary casino and nearby restaurants, bars, and other entertainment establishments.

Medinah Temple was once a Bloomingdale’s department store at the intersection of Ontario St. and Ohio St. The study describes the neighborhood as “an area of nearby dense commercial and residential uses.”

Despite the study’s efforts, there is no shortage of pushback to its conclusions that a temporary casino will fit seamlessly into the already-bustling area. Critics say the occasion will tax the area’s existing parking infrastructure (in the absence of onsite parking), potentially create gridlock, and increase crime. There have been calls for an independent study from those who feel that one commissioned by the casino developer is unlikely to be objective.

A Notable Omission

The study specifies locations where rideshare vehicles and charter buses would pick up and drop off casino visitors. However, it omits the number of these that it expects to pass through. Alderman Brendan Reilly, who’s staunchly opposed to the proposal, criticized the study’s assumptions about their impact. Speaking to CBS Chicagohe said:

Most casinos in urban centers have parking onsite, and it’s free. Here parking will be in garages around the site, which cost $40 to $50 a night, which tells me very few people are going to use parking facilities to go to the casino. They’re going to use rideshare. They’re going to use charter buses… Go back to the drawing board and do it properly. Account for rideshare traffic which is going to be the bulk of the traffic here and account for the charter buses that bring a lot of our seniors to casinos.

Local community group Streeterville Organization of Active Residents released the following statement, attributed to its president, Deborah Gershbein:

Last July, SOAR met with representatives of Bally’s to discuss the interim site at Medinah Temple… their representatives informed us that they were doing a traffic study. SOAR does not believe the traffic study that was just published is an accurate assumption of the congestion that will be caused by the addition of a casino in the area. The site is surrounded by the two main north and south arteries in and out of the north end of downtown, Ohio and Ontario Streets, and Wabash on the east side of the building is very narrow and already congested, with no place for additional cars to go.

Other Concerns: Parking, Public Transit, and Crime

The proposed location’s lack of a parking garage is another hot-button issue for critics. So, too, is the study’s assumption that nearly half of casino visitors will get there on foot, by bike, or using public transit.

Critics like Reilly and Gershbein have also expressed concerns about the recent rise in crime on CTA mass transit and throughout downtown Chicago. That poses a risk to patrons who opt to walk, bike or take public transit to the temporary casino as the study claims they will. Casino-goers tend to be flush with cash, and many, when departing, often late at night, are also some combination of exhausted and intoxicated, making them prime targets.

Bally’s Looks Beyond the Physical World

Getting a foot on the ground in Chicago is essential for Bally’s, and not only for the direct revenue that it will produce.

In all likelihood, 2023 will again see the Illinois legislature considering the Internet Gaming Act (IGA). Opinions on its chances vary, but it will legalize online casinos in the state if it passes. Notably, it contains a provision similar to its 2019 sports betting counterpart, requiring prospective gamblers in Illinois to register in person at a physical casino.

The sports betting bill’s in-person registration requirement was for a period of 18 months, though it was temporarily suspended in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. It elapsed in March this year. The IGA’s in-person registration period is only six months, but it would still handicap any operators without a retail presence.

Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming supported these in-person requirements. Industry watchers referred to it as the “penalty box,” seeing it as a means of offsetting the early advantages that daily fantasy sports (DFS) giants DraftKings and FanDuel had gotten in building online customer databases before sports betting was legalized in Illinois.

For this reason, the interim River North casino is vital to Bally’s online gaming ambitions in Illinois. The proposal provides the Company not only with the means to register players in person while River West inches closer to completion but to do so in the heart of the state’s largest metropolis.

About the Author

Emile Avanessian

Emile is a one-time banker turned freelance writer. He previously worked in equity research and as a member of the Financial Sponsors Group with Goldman Sachs, where he worked on numerous casino- and gaming-related projects. His written work has focused largely on sports (NBA basketball and European soccer) and sports betting. Emile currently also writes for Squawka and Urban Pitch. His work has also been published in The Los Angeles Times, The Blizzard, Yahoo Sports, SI.com, and ESPN.

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