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Emanuel wants DePaul basketball back in city but plays coy on where

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Oct. 1 2012 two major conventions are extending deals with McCormick Place.  | Al

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on Oct. 1, 2012, two major conventions are extending deals with McCormick Place. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: November 3, 2012 6:12AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday he’s determined to bring the DePaul Blue Demons basketball program back to Chicago, but he pointedly refused to discuss the possibility of building a new basketball arena near McCormick Place.

“DePaul for years has been talking about a stadium in Chicago that’s better for their basketball team, better for their fans and better to be closer to home. It is in our interest as a city that they choose Chicago,” Emanuel said at an unrelated news conference at McCormick Place.

“So, we’re gonna work together to look at Chicago being a home for DePaul’s Blue Demons. It will be a win for DePaul, and it will be a win for the city of Chicago.”

Asked where he wants the team to locate, the mayor said, “That’s ultimately up to them. But, I want them to pick Chicago. They want to pick Chicago. They’ve been looking at this for 15 years. I want to bring it to a conclusion that’s successful for them and successful for the city of Chicago.”

Emanuel smiled, but stuck with the same answer when asked whether he would like to build a new arena near McCormick Place to serve as a catalyst for development of restaurants, clubs and other nightlife the convention center now lacks.

Pressed on whether he was determined to build a new arena as opposed to having the Blue Demons share the United Center with the Bulls and Blackhawks, the mayor said, “I think you guys got it. I’m not answering the question. I’m gonna basically go with what I got, which is a win for the city of Chicago. But, that is now the fifth question with the same answer. Anybody else?”

McPier CEO Jim Reilly refused to confirm or deny ongoing negotiations with DePaul, referring the Chicago Sun-Times to a vague statement issued last week by the university.

Crain’s Chicago Business reported last week that DePaul, the nation’s largest Catholic university, is in talks with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority about building an arena near the massive convention center.

The report came on the heels of Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed revealing Friday that DePaul is in serious talks to move to the United Center from its current home, the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.

Crain’s, quoting “multiple inside sources,” said the separate McCormick Place talks are part of a deal being pushed by Emanuel. McPier’s bonding authority could be used to raise the cash to build the arena.

DePaul wouldn’t specifically comment on the McCormick Place report, other than to say it is indeed looking for a new city home.

In an email to the Sun-Times, a United Center spokesman said, “We agree with Mayor Emanuel’s idea to bring DePaul basketball back to Chicago, just like the Bulls practice facility, it would be good for the city, and the United Center is prepared to explore this with DePaul.”

Although the mayor and Reilly were coy about talks with DePaul, Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh made no bones about it: A new basketball arena in the shadows of the convention center would spur the development of nightlife the area desperately needs.

“There’s not the nightlife that one would expect in this area when you literally have, on any given day, 100,000 people in this building. When there’s 100,000 people moving in and moving out, it would be great if they had bars and restaurants and places to go to, including additional hotels,” Welsh said.

“Anything that takes place in the greater McCormick area ... provides a service for our customers — whether it’s restaurants, entertainment, all those attractions. These are things that people expect when they come to Chicago. ... We’re missing a great opportunity to further enhance the services and facilities we have right here at McCormick” Place.

Welsh noted that the United Center is busy with the Bulls, Blackhawks, the circus, ice shows and concerts.

“The building of a second arena may make sense at this stage of the game in terms of satisfying the sports demand — not only for DePaul, but other [teams]. We have a sports commission now. And the sports commission right now sometimes needs venues that may be not available at the United Center,” he said.

In 1980, the Blue Demons, in need of more space during legendary Coach Ray Meyer’s reign, moved most of their basketball games away from Alumni Hall on its Lincoln Park campus to the then-Rosemont Horizon next to O’Hare Airport.

But DePaul officials have been longing to bring games back to Chicago, in part, to boost its ability to recruit talent. Sneed reported Friday that the university checked out the A. Finkl & Sons Co. steel factory site on the North Side as well as other properties close to the campus this summer.

A switch to the United Center would put the Blue Demons smack dab into an emerging new United Center-area complex that could include a Bulls practice facility. The Bulls in June announced they were leaving their Berto Center practice facility in Deerfield for a Chicago site, possibly in the UC parking lots.

That’s where a planned $95 million entertainment complex is in the works. Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz — an investor in Wrapports LLC, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times — want to create a 263,000-square-foot retail-and-entertainment center on the east side of the United Center that would add four restaurants, four bars, a team store, an event space, team offices, parking, a terrace, an atrium and a green roof, according to Metropolitan Planning Council documents.

Reinsdorf reportedly favors bringing the Blue Demons to the United Center.

But, he may not be able to get everything he wants.

To coincide with his decision to move the Bulls practice facility from Deerfield to Chicago — and build the $95 million entertainment complex — Reinsdorf wants the city and state to extend the lucrative tax break that has saved the Bulls and Blackhawks tens of millions of dollars on property tax bills assessed against the United Center.

The tax break is due to expire in 2016. It all but limits real estate taxes on the $180 million stadium to $1 million-a-year, a fraction of the amount paid by Arlington International Racecourse and the Presidential Towers apartment complex, which cost the same to build.

Emanuel has not ruled out an extension of the lucrative property tax break. But, he has insisted that the new round of negotiations would be on “a different set of terms” to protect Chicago taxpayers.

“No business has the same terms as they had 20 years ago. ... And when we have that discussion, that’s gonna be my attitude. ... I’m not a pushover and I’m gonna make sure the taxpayers get a good deal,” the mayor told reporters in June.

“I’m glad that the Bulls are expanding. I’m glad they’re gonna spend $95 million. I’m glad they’re gonna create jobs, and I’m glad they’re moving the Bulls back. But that doesn’t mean you get what you got before.”

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