Bally’s has given Tribune Publishing its walking papers, exercising a relocation option to force the newspaper company to vacate its mammoth River West printing plant to make way for a casino.
The relocation notice, delivered several weeks ago, will end a four-decade run for the Freedom Center, which is slated for demolition to build a $1.74 billion casino complex in its place along the Chicago River.
But Freedom Center won’t have to stop the presses immediately. Tribune Publishing will have up to two years to find a new location for its printing plant before the casino breaks ground, Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim said. And Bally’s will have to chip in to fund that relocation.
“We have time,” Kim said. “The plant could have between one and two years before we put a shovel in the ground.”
Par Ridder, general manager of the Chicago Tribune, declined to comment.
Rhode Island-based Bally’s won a heated competition to build the Chicago casino, getting final planning and zoning approval from the city in December for an entertainment complex that will include an exhibition hall, 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, 11 restaurants and 4,000 gaming positions.
The Freedom Center printing plant was not part of the original plan, but Kim had considered adding it to the mix as a long-term tenant — and potential tourist attraction. Walking the site with an architect in December, they came up with an idea to build around the presses, shift the location of the hotel and incorporate the printing operation as part of the overall entertainment theme.
The city, he said, nixed that idea.
“We were even considering building a glass box around the printing presses as a cool tourist attraction that patrons at the casino could see,” Kim said. “For whatever reason, the city didn’t like it.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Bally’s became Tribune Publishing’s landlord in November when it bought the 30-acre Freedom Center printing site from Nexstar Media for $200 million. Within days, Bally’s executed a sale-leaseback on the land with Chicago-based Oak Street Real Estate Capital, raising up to $500 million to help build the casino complex.
Built in 1981, the Freedom Center prints the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers. It has also housed the Chicago Tribune newsroom since 2021.
Tribune Publishing’s lease at Freedom Center is set to expire in June, but the newspaper company has exercised an option to extend it for another 10 years. Bally’s and Tribune Publishing are engaged in arbitration to determine the lease rate for the extension.
The lease extension, Kim said, is ultimately moot.
“Even with the extension option, there’s a clause in the lease that allows for us to relocate,” Kim said. “And so we started the process of engaging that clause.”
As part of the lease, Bally’s is required to help Tribune Publishing find a comparable printing location. The lease rate will play a role in determining viable options.
One possibility is Bally’s building a new Chicago-area plant for Tribune and leasing it out, Kim said. Bally’s could also offer Tribune Publishing a cash settlement in lieu of providing an alternative printing location.
There may be another option north of the border. Last year, Tribune Publishing’s parent company, hedge fund Alden Global Capital, purchased the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s idled printing plant in West Milwaukee from Gannett for $26 million.
Alden has yet to engage in relocation discussions with Bally’s while the 10-year lease extension remains in arbitration over rates, Kim said.
While the city has signed off on Bally’s plan, it still needs state approval after filing its Chicago casino license application with the Illinois Gaming Board in August.
On Thursday, the Gaming Board approved supplier licenses for a temporary Bally’s casino at the landmark Medinah Temple in River North. Kim said he expects to get approval for an operating license by spring but pushed back the target launch date for the temporary casino by one month to July.
The permanent casino is not expected to open before 2026.