Brown: Does DePaul really need a new publicly subsidized arena? No
If you took a sheet of paper and started drawing up a list titled “What Chicago Really Needs,” I’ll bet you could fill both sides and never even consider writing down: another publicly subsidized sports stadium/arena.
Yet, we are now told that just such a facility is under consideration by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the McPier Authority to serve as the future home for DePaul University basketball.
With all due respect to the Blue Demons and their fans, may I be the first to publicly say: Forget about it.
The mayor is right about one thing. It would be great to have DePaul return to the city from Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, formerly the Horizon, where the team began playing in 1980 when it outgrew tiny Alumni Hall.
And if DePaul’s trustees want to invest $150 million or more of university funds in a new basketball arena closer to campus, then we should applaud them for their confidence, commitment and contribution to the vibrancy of this great city.
But if they’re looking for the public to help pay for it — and why else would they be turning to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and considering locations near McCormick Place — then let’s nip this idea in the bud.
To be fair, none of the participants — not DePaul, not the mayor, not McPier officials — are talking publicly about the proposal, and I really don’t like criticizing something without knowing the details.
But history would tell us that sometimes in this city, by the time the powers-that-be are ready to surface their plan, it’s already a done deal. Better in that case to get on record early. With all the financial problems facing this city and state, this is no time to be investing public funds in new sports stadiums. (We can talk about OLD sports stadiums at another time.)
The only thing the mayor is saying for now is how he wants to bring DePaul basketball back to the city, which would help fulfill a stated goal of the university.
Emanuel has refused to comment directly on a report in Crain’s Chicago Business last week that he has been pushing a deal for DePaul to move its games to a new arena to be built for it near McCormick Place with the help of the McPier Board. My own sources confirm the school has approached McPier officials.
By also hosting concerts and shows, the arena in theory would drive continued development of the neighboring Motor Row district just west of McCormick Place as a restaurant and entertainment destination. It also could possibly serve the needs of major trade shows and conventions that like to gather all their participants together for speeches and such.
My own opinion is the Motor Row neighborhood will move forward on its own when the economy rebounds, and I’m told there’s not enough demand from conventions for an arena setting to justify McPier making the expenditure alone.
As for a new arena serving as a concert venue, we don’t seem to have any shortage of those in Chicago, either.
The new arena would most obviously create competition on the concert front for the United Center, which is why you can expect owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Rocky Wirtz to throw up roadblocks.
That’s also why it would be in the United Center’s interests to work out a deal to add DePaul’s 16 home basketball dates to its winter offerings — discussions for which are also under way.
But if given the option of having a stadium of its own, subsidized by the public, you can understand why that would be more attractive to DePaul than being just another tenant at the United Center.
The last thing I want to do here is to strengthen Reinsdorf’s bargaining power with the school. He always seems to do just fine on his own.
But I really can’t see the point of building another publicly owned or subsidized venue to compete with the privately owned United Center — or the UIC Pavilion or Chicago Theatre or Skyline Stage, or for that matter, the Rosemont venues.
In fact, it makes so little sense on its face that you have to wonder whether Emanuel has another major piece up his sleeve that would at least make it easier to digest, which is also the opinion of Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp Ltd. and an expert in stadium financing.
“There’s got to be something more to this than we know right now,” Ganis said. “Rahm typically has something else going on.”
Maybe he could start by helping DePaul with basketball recruiting.