Mark Brown: Welcome to Rahm’s Grand Illusion
BY MARK BROWN May 15, 2013 11:48PM
Updated: June 18, 2013 7:49AM
Appearing soon at a new 10,000-seat arena at McCormick Place: The Amazing Rahm, Grand Illusionist.
He’ll razzle and dazzle you with mind-bending feats of job expansion, financial wizardry and most of all, public relations packaging.
Was that our mayor last seen trapped in a glass-encased parking meter box and dangled from a crane over the goby-infested waters of Burnham Harbor with hordes of Chicago public school parents threatening to tip the crane?
Yes, but there he is at Navy Pier, unveiling a $115 million redesign plan that includes an expanded Chicago Children’s Museum (didn’t we announce that already?) and added locations for connected restaurant and bar owners.
And what’s that he’s hiding behind the curtain? Could it be the new casino location?
Boy, oh boy. Here you thought from reading the papers this week that we were just going to build another publicly-subsidized sports stadium to benefit private interests, this one for DePaul University.
But really we’re getting Elevate Chicago, a “Major Redevelopment of Chicago Convention and Trade Show, Tourism Infrastructure.”
Elevate Chicago includes not just a basketball arena that can double as an assembly hall for trade shows, but a whole new entertainment district for McCormick Place, complete with hotels, as well as the Navy Pier overhaul.
An investment of nearly $640 million, they say. But don’t get bogged down in the details. That might spoil the fun.
And we can use the arena as much as we like, because after all, this isn’t the public subsidizing DePaul, we are told, this is DePaul subsidizing the public’s stadium (which by the way will bear a name of DePaul’s choosing.)
You can’t find spin like that in just any City Hall in America, I’m here to tell you. You need The Amazing Rahm.
I yearn for the resurgence of DePaul basketball as much as the next guy, even if it’s never been the same for me since Joe Ponsetto graduated. And with apologies to the mayors of Rosemont (both current and late), I hate the Allstate Arena.
But from the moment this idea was first publicly floated, I’ve said we have enough publicly-subsidized stadiums in Chicago, and nothing I’ve heard yet convinces me otherwise.
As explained to us Wednesday, the stadium is projected to cost about $173 million, including land acquisition. DePaul will put up $70 million of that.
The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which operates McCormick Place and Navy Pier, will put up another $70 million to be repaid from hotel taxes. Those are public dollars, not funny money, and don’t let anybody try to tell you otherwise.
Finally, the city of Chicago will commit $33.5 million in tax-increment financing dollars to acquire the land for the project.
TIF dollars, as I hope The Reader’s Ben Joravsky has taught most of you by now, are property tax payments the city siphons from a specific geographic area to pay for a mayor’s pet projects — depriving the schools, park district and other local taxing bodies of their share.
The city will spend an additional $21.5 million in TIF funds on land acquisition for a hotel to be built next to the arena. I don’t think we can fairly count that as part of the subsidy for the arena. That subsidy will go to the hotel developer.
On top of all that is the question of operating costs, pegged at $8 million annually. McCormick Place officials say they expect to break even in the first year the arena opens — for the 2016-17 season — and to make a profit thereafter. We should be so lucky.
Providing a subsidy to a private university’s basketball arena is going to have a lot of people questioning the city’s priorities.
In fairness, the city money involved wouldn’t put a dent in even one year’s cost of paying for city retiree health care — or keep the schools open. But it all adds up.
With all due respect to the mayor’s Elevate Chicago packaging, the Navy Pier rehab has nothing to do with the basketball arena. And those McCormick Place hotels have little to do with it either.
The DePaul arena makes so little sense on the surface that it has fueled speculation the McCormick Place entertainment district will be the site for the long-sought city-owned casino.
McPier CEO Jim Reilly shot down that theory Wednesday, telling me his agency supports bringing a casino to Chicago, just not anywhere near McCormick Place.
“We don’t want it too close,” Reilly said, arguing that locating a casino in the immediate neighborhood would cost the city trade show business — a view he has shared with the mayor’s office.
The Amazing Rahm is saving the casino for the encore.