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Chicago River cable cars, CTA club cars — tourism group gets lots of suggestions

Historic Navy Pier is Chicago's lakefront playground major attractifor tourism. File Photo. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Historic Navy Pier is Chicago's lakefront playground and major attraction for tourism. File Photo. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 21, 2013 6:40AM

Glass-enclosed cable cars running along the Chicago River from Navy Pier. Designated club cars on CTA trains to and from O’Hare where travelers could store their luggage and order a drink. Plane rides along the lakefront that take off from Northerly Island.

Last year, Chicago opened international sales offices in Brazil, Germany and Japan — and asked the best and brightest minds in international tourism to do a no-holds-barred review of the city’s offerings — in an effort to reach Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of attracting 10 million more visitors by 2020.

“Assess Chicago. Compare our strengths and weaknesses to other cities, both nationally and internationally,” Choose Chicago Board Chairman Bruce Rauner said at the time.

“Find out where we’re strong. Where we’re weak. Where might we want to enhance our offerings and then, develop an implementation effort to make that happen to enhance our offerings, enhance attractions we can offer to visitors.”

Now, the reviews are in, and Choose Chicago has a smorgasbord of ideas to spruce up an image of Chicago that’s taken an international beating over the last year triggered by the gang violence that’s driving up the city’s homicide rate.

In addition to the cable cars, CTA club cars and “float plane port” on the island formerly known as Meigs Field, Choose Chicago said the suggestions include: light shows illuminating classic Chicago buildings and bridges; a lakefront botanic garden; a technology park tailor-made for kids, and an architectural festival similar to those in Europe.

The list also includes a pair of familiar suggestions.

One is a casino and entertainment complex that has eluded Chicago for decades — assuming Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly can ever settle their differences.

The other is a jazz and blues hall of fame in the South Loop.

In September 2011, the City Council agreed to transform the three-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue between Cermak and the Stevenson Expy. from “Motor Row” into “Music Row.”

The hope was to someday turn a street once lined with automobile showrooms into a thriving entertainment district that celebrates Chicago’s musical roots in blues and jazz.

Rauner said Choose Chicago reviewed 18 “new opportunities — rides, attractions, entertainment venues” — and zeroed in on seven or eight viewed as “particularly compelling.”

One of them is the glass-enclosed cable cars running along the riverfront.

“That could be a huge potential attraction. It’s unique. It’s exciting. It allows us to take advantage of our beautiful architecture and our beautiful riverfront,” he said.

Asked who would pay for the ideas, Rauner said, “They can almost all be privately financed by business investors.”

Rauner called boosting tourism the “fastest way” to grow the Chicago area economy, create jobs and generate sorely needed tax revenue.

Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh and Michael Sacks, vice-chair of World Business Chicago, could not be reached for comment on the tourism ideas, expected to be formally unveiled at Choose Chicago’s annual meeting on Thursday.

Rauner and Sacks are investors in Wrapports LLC, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times, and Sacks is also a board member.

CTA President Forrest Claypool did not return calls on the idea for club cars on CTA trains that former Mayor Richard M. Daley dreamed of making express trains to and from O’Hare in exchange for premium fares.

Chicago currently attracts 40 million annual visitors, but only 1.2 million of them come from overseas.

Emanuel’s goal is to raise it to 50 million visitors by 2020 and to move into the top five cities for international tourists. Chicago currently ranks 10th among U.S. cities.

A 25 percent increase could raise visitor spending by $3.6 billion a year and boost annual tax revenue by up to $300 million.

And what does Emanuel think of the new attractions that proponents hope will be privately financed?

“The mayor is adamant that we look at every option to improve tourism and he is pleased that the best minds in the city are looking at all ideas,” Sarah Hamilton, Emanuel’s communications director, wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Hamilton said it’s too soon to say which of the suggestions the mayor would embrace or how they would be financed.

“What the mayor is looking for is a complete set of options. When Choose Chicago has a well-formed array of ideas that they support, they’ll bring them to the mayor for his review,” she wrote.

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