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United Center out of running for DePaul basketball team, source says

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins center drives basket against DePaul guard Charles McKinney left forward Donnavan Kirk during first half

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins, center, drives to the basket against DePaul guard Charles McKinney, left, and forward Donnavan Kirk during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Rosemont, Ill., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: April 21, 2013 6:27AM

DePaul University has turned down a 10-year, rent-free offer to move Blue Demons basketball to the United Center in favor of pursuing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a new basketball arena near McCormick Place.

“We gave them our best shot,” Rocky Wirtz, co-chairman of the United Center’s executive committee, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. Wirtz had the conversation with DePaul representatives about a month ago but said nothing until asked about the situation this week.

Wirtz said the United Center representatives had offered rent-free space, 100 percent take of the gate, a 10-year term and help from the Blackhawks, Bulls and United Center staff in marketing their team and the games. Wirtz is also an investor in Sun-Times parent company Wrapports.

“We thought it would be a great way to recruit players from Chicago,” Wirtz said, noting that this past week’s Big 10 play at the United Center was a “great experience.”

A United Center source close to the negotiations said, “Concessions and parking would have stayed with us — no different than any other tenant. They said, `It’s not really rent-free. We have to pay some of our expenses, like ushers and security.’ They obviously didn’t think it was so extraordinary. They decided to turn it down to explore the McCormick Place option.”

United Center officials made public months ago their hopes to lure the Blue Demons as a tenant, but a high-ranking DePaul official said the school never seriously considered the offer because the UC would not guarantee playing dates for the Blue Demons, who would have had to take a scheduling back seat to the Bulls, Blackhawks and possibly other events.

The DePaul official said the offer was viewed more as an effort to block development of another arena in the city.

``They just don’t want new competition,’’ the official said.

After struggling for years to return to its basketball heyday under legendary head coach Ray Meyer, the United Center source speculated that DePaul may prefer a smaller arena that’s easier to fill than the 20,000-seat UC.

Are stadium partners Jerry Reinsdorf and Rocky Wirtz concerned that a smaller venue near McCormick Place would compete against the United Center for concerts?

“It could be a little competition, but we already have competition from the Allstate” arena in Rosemont, the source said.

“This would be closer [to downtown] and publicly owned.”

Greg Greenwell, a spokesman for the DePaul basketball program, could not be reached for comment. Neither could McCormick Place CEO Jim Reilly, who has been negotiating with DePaul.

In 1980, the nation’s largest Catholic university moved most of its basketball games away from Alumni Hall on its Lincoln Park campus to the then-Rosemont Horizon near O’Hare Airport. Student attendance has lagged in Rosemont, in part, because the arena is difficult for students without cars to get to.

For years, DePaul has been longing to bring games back to Chicago to boost attendance and the school’s ability to recruit top talent.

Last summer, the school started scouting out locations in landlocked Lincoln Park.

A few months later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel went public with his determination to bring the DePaul Blue Demons basketball program back to Chicago.

At the time, sources said the mayor wanted to build a new home for DePaul near McCormick Place — using the convention center’s excess bonding authority — to serve as a catalyst for development of restaurants, clubs and other nightlife the convention center now lacks.

“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,” Emanuel said then.

Asked where he wanted the team to locate, the mayor said, “That’s ultimately is 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.”

A few weeks later, the mayor talked openly about building a new arena that could double as the new home of DePaul basketball and as a practice facility for the Bulls. The Bulls subsequently chose to build their own 55,000-square-foot practice facility on a United Center parking lot.

McCormick Place does not yet control the land it needs to build a basketball arena, let alone a new hotel in the planning stages.

But that hasn’t stopped Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh from arguing that 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 last fall.

“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.

The McPier site has been the school’s primary option in its goal to locate a city home for the men’s basketball team by 2018. But talks were preliminary because the site was tied up in bankruptcy proceedings.

Those proceedings ended in late January when a judge ruled the property would be put up for sale at auction.

The university and the board already have strong ties because two McPier members—retired McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg and retired ComEd chief Frank M. Clark Jr. — also are members of DePaul’s board of trustees.

But they have said they would recuse themselves from any formal talks or votes.

``I don’t think it would be a problem because there are seven other members and [a vote] would need five [for a majority],’’ according to a source with knowledge of the talks.

The McPier site has been DePaul’s primary arena focus since last fall

when city officials, looking to develop a larger entertainment complex

around McCormick Place, raised the option.

Acquiring property near McCormick Place isn’t the only obstacle to construction of a new DePaul basketball arena.

Local Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said Tuesday he’s dead-set against the idea.

“Taxpayer money to build a stadium for 18 games? Somebody’s got to have a hole in their head to be proposing that,” Fioretti said.

“There’s resistance to helping the Cubs, a team that generates $17 million a year in amusement tax revenue and supports all of the businesses surrounding Wrigley Field. There’s no claim for financial assistance there. Yet, here we are helping a private institution create a place to play for a very limited number of games. What will it generate?”

Fioretti said land around McCormick Place would be better used to build “several small hotels, invest in the tourism trade and get those 5,000- to 10,000-member shows on a much more regular basis.”

The alderman scoffed at suggestions that McCormick Place has excess bonding authority that could be used to build a basketball arena.

“That’s still taxpayers’ money in tough economic times,” he said.

A switch to the United Center would have put the Blue Demons smack dab into an emerging United Center-area complex.

In addition to the practice facility that will replace the Berto Center in Deerfield, the Bulls want to build a $95 million retail and entertainment complex on the east side of the United Center, but only if they get an extended property tax break.

That’s a politically sensitive subject that, Emanuel stressed last week, has not yet been decided.

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