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Boom times coming to McCormick Place neighborhood

When I first came to McCormick Place in 1989 as CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the neighborhood surrounding the convention center was pretty desolate at night. A vibrant residential community has grown up around the center in the intervening 25 years, although so far without much retail or entertainment.

That’s about to change.

MPEA is mapping out an ambitious transformation for the area with a series of projects that will greatly enhance Chicago’s position in the global convention and trade show industry, with all that means for economic growth and new jobs.

The term “public-private partnership” sometimes elicits skepticism, but the fact is, governments, businesses and nonprofits acting alone typically can no longer pull off transformational economic development projects.

Consider the recently announced Digital Manufacturing Lab destined for Chicago. Revitalizing our manufacturing sector will be accomplished with a combination of government dollars, private investment and institutional resources.

And so it is with continuing the upward trajectory of Chicago’s convention and trade show industry. We are marshaling public and private investment and know-how to better manage McCormick Place and turn the neighborhood around it into a valuable asset for the neighborhood and the convention and tourism industry.

Just as MPEA leased Navy Pier to a private not-for-profit, Navy Pier Inc., we brought in a top private operator of trade shows and convention centers — SMG — to manage McCormick Place. SMG/McCormick Place, in partnership with Choose Chicago (itself a public-private partnership), has annually booked a least 50 new pieces of business.

A series of collaborative public-private developments starting early next year will create a lively entertainment district around McCormick Place for convention-goers and neighborhood residents alike, and spark the long-awaited redevelopment of the landmarked Motor Row area along Michigan Avenue south of Cermak Road.

The existing and planned hotels, in turn, need restaurants, retail and entertainment venues to succeed. And the South Loop neighborhood needs hotels, restaurants, nightlife and retail.

The projects stretch over a six-block area, from a Green Line CTA Station now under construction heading eastward along Cermak to Lake Michigan. They include private development along Motor Row and Michigan Avenue, the new McCormick Place event center and a 1,200 room headquarters hotel to be built by MPEA immediately across from our West 2 Building. Streetscaping, restaurants, retail and nightlife will create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban area. MPEA will break ground early in 2015 on the event center and headquarters hotel, with completion anticipated in early 2017.

The headquarters hotel fills a major competitive gap, as Chicago trails every other major convention city in the number of hotel rooms close to its center. It will be designed by the notable architectural firm, Gensler, as a slender 56-story tower acting as a beacon for McCormick Place and the entire South Side.

The event center is being designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, the firm of internationally renowned architect Cesar Pelli. It will be used for trade show general sessions, concerts and special events. And it fulfills DePaul’s longstanding desire for a Chicago home to boost attendance and rejuvenate its basketball program.

DePaul is making a substantial private investment in this facility, although that fact is sometimes obscured by rhetoric from critics who wrongly contend that this is some kind of taxpayer-funded boondoggle. The reality is we needed significant private investment to make the event center happen. DePaul is putting in half of the estimated $140 million construction cost (MPEA is paying the other half). It also will pay at or above-market rent for using the facility. So DePaul is taking care of its own business while also making a major private investment in Chicago’s tourism and convention infrastructure.

A third major piece of the McCormick Place Entertainment District includes plans for a privately developed boutique hotel at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cermak, also featuring restaurants and entertainment.

These are exactly the kind of projects for which we must use our precious public and private capital resources if Chicago is going to continue to thrive in a highly competitive regional and national economy. Our experience over the past three years at MPEA demonstrates there is a lot of merit in harnessing government and the private sector, and that going forward, the public would be wise to explore these kinds of options.

Jim Reilly is Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

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