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Cubs deserve break on Wrigley Field rehab, since they’re giving taxpayers one

Gov. PQuinn says Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants use Illinois Sports Facilities Authority help Cubs by issuing tax-exempt bonds renovate Wrigley

Gov. Pat Quinn says Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to use the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to help the Cubs by issuing tax-exempt bonds to renovate Wrigley or reviving a plan to have the stadium authority acquire and renovate it. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: February 24, 2013 6:38AM

The Chicago White Sox and Bears each play in stadiums constructed with taxpayer dollars.

The Bulls and Blackhawks both play in a sports palace that was privately built but enjoys a property tax break that is another form of public subsidy.

Now even DePaul University wants public money to help build its own basketball arena in conjunction with McCormick Place.

Against this backdrop comes the new proposal from the Chicago Cubs and the Ricketts family to rehab Wrigley Field with the ballclub’s own money — not a dime from the taxpayers, we are told.

Why, bless their little hearts. I think somebody has finally got it.

There are strings attached, of course, fairly major strings if you live in the Wrigleyville neighborhood or take a hard line on historic preservation issues.

But if the owners of the one Chicago sports stadium most deserving of a public subsidy — due to its historic significance — are willing to forego it in favor of risking their own dough, then we ought to make every effort to help them make it work.

While Wrigley Field is not every Chicago baseball fan’s cup of tea, it is undeniably a national treasure and one of this city’s premier tourist attractions. We need to preserve it yet still make it economically viable for the next half century.

Up until now, the Cubs under the Ricketts ownership had been floating a plan to finance the much-needed ballpark renovation with money that the city and county would have received from future increases in amusement tax revenues generated by the Cubs. Before that, prior owner Tribune Company had pushed various public financing proposals.

But for whatever reason and for a hundred reasons, the political stars have never aligned for the Cubs the same way they have for all the other professional sports franchises seeking a handout, which, when you think about it, mirrors their on-field success — or lack thereof — as well.

In recent years, the public response to the Cubs’ pleas for help has been to tell them they ought to be able to pay for any improvements on their own.

In essence, the Cubs are now saying fine, we’ll do that, but you have to untie our hands about what we can do with the ballpark to generate revenue.

That means more advertising signage, more night games, more concerts, the use of Sheffield Avenue on game days and considerable leeway in redesigning the aging grandstand.

The obvious points of conflict are with the rooftop club owners whose sight lines could be harmed by the signs, with neighbors who don’t want the extra disruption and with historic preservationists who will say the changes will ruin the character of the ballpark.

I don’t have much sympathy for the rooftop owners, but there are clear opportunities for them to strike a mutually advantageous deal with the Cubs.

On the preservation side, the changes being considered appear true to the ballpark, despite fairly dramatic alterations to the exterior of the grandstand. Not everybody will approve.

Where I’m most uncomfortable is that the Cubs seem to be taking an absolutist position. Rather than looking to simply ease the restrictions on night games or concerts or signage by negotiating new limits, they want the restrictions eliminated. Anything short of that and the Cubs say it’s back to asking for a public subsidy.

As a negotiating position, that might make sense. As a bottom line, not so much.

The Cubs shouldn’t need carte blanche. They need to hit a number to make their project work.

The Cubs can forecast how many more night games and concerts they will need to make the debt service payments.

The Cubs not only own a unique ballpark; they operate in a unique neighborhood environment that has to be respected. The Ricketts have done a good job of that so far, but that doesn’t free them from future obligations.

While I understand the complaints from my sports brethren that maybe the Cubs ought to be concentrating more on the product on the field than on the ballpark, everyone should understand at this point that stadium economics are a major determinant of the money available to invest in players.

While fans shows up at Wrigley Field even when the team is lousy, attendance is just part of the revenue picture. The Cubs are handicapped compared to the competition when it comes to skyboxes, other premium seating, advertising and parking. Plus the old place is falling apart.

And they’re still the only pro sports team in this town without a taxpayer subsidy.

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