Tue 25 Jun, 2013 05:22 am
Critics Say Chicago Shouldn’t Aid DePaul Arena With Schools Closing
By BEN STRAUSS
Published: June 23, 2013
CHICAGO — Since 1980, the basketball team at DePaul University, the largest Roman Catholic college in the United States, has played its home games in the suburb of Rosemont, Ill., at a nondescript and, lately, mostly empty arena.
For several years, DePaul, which is in the leafy Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side and a member of the Big East, has declared its interest in moving back to the city to try to recapture its glory days, when the team was a national powerhouse in the 1970s and ’80s.
In May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the university announced a proposal for a 10,000 seat, $173 million arena near McCormick Place, a convention center along the lakefront south of downtown. DePaul and the quasi-government agency that runs McCormick Place would chip in $70 million each for the publicly owned venture. The city’s tab would be $33 million, and that has created a bit of a stir.
The unveiling of the plan, which came six days before the Board of Education voted to close 50 public schools because of a $1 billion deficit and underutilization issues, has troubled some.
“This project could not be worse for human priorities,” said Bob Fioretti, the alderman of the ward that would house the arena. “We can’t afford neighborhood schools, but we can bankroll an unnecessary basketball arena for a private university?”
Since the deal was announced and an accompanying bill was passed by the Illinois Senate and House, a report from Crain’s Chicago Business detailed DePaul basketball’s attendance woes. Estimates that the new arena would be a moneymaker sooner rather than later were pegged to DePaul’s announced crowds of about 8,000 a game, but the actual numbers were closer to 2,600, according to the report. (DePaul is 7-83 in conference play over the last five years.)
“School closings were a real horror for people,” said Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who noted that most of them were on the South and West Sides. “And here is another project for the central business district. There are other parts of town, and we don’t have any plans for them.”
The city counters that calling the project only an investment in a basketball arena is shortsighted and incomplete. DePaul represents one piece of a $1.1 billion investment to boost tourism, a plan that includes adding amenities to McCormick Place, which has lost convention business to cities like Orlando and Las Vegas, and sprucing up Navy Pier, the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction, which is just north of downtown.
The arena is part of a goal to revitalize the South Loop neighborhood, and the project includes two hotels, new restaurants and areas for entertainment, and potentially a casino.
The arena would be an events center for concerts and conventions when DePaul is not playing, and the university has agreed to pay rent at $25,000 a game for men’s home dates and $7,500 for women’s games.
DePaul’s $70 million investment was needed, Tom Alexander, a city spokesman, said, because it would ensure that construction at Navy Pier and McCormick Place could proceed in tandem. “This is really a facility the entire city can use,” he said. “DePaul is helping facilitate it.”
Then there are the 10,000 construction and 3,800 permanent jobs that it would create, by the city’s math. The unemployment rate in the Chicago metro area is more than 9 percent.
“I would be safe to assume any city in the country would love to have these jobs and these types of announcements,” said Jorge Ramirez, the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
He added, “Tax dollars that come in from convention and tourism can be spent anywhere in the city, and should be.”
The city declined to address the timing of the announcement but said in a statement that its “challenges are equal in urgency and priority.”
Still, the public financing remains a sticking point for critics. The teachers union says that the $33 million promised by the city, which comes from a complex method called tax increment financing, might otherwise be spent on education and other city functions (the figure reaches $55 million when the next-door hotel is included). Alexander called that charge “utterly wrong.”
In addition to the round of school closings, school budgets are expected to be cut next year, and that, too, puzzles some observers. “We’re told there’s no money, and suddenly there’s money for this,” said Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. “It’s a mixed message.”
Sanderson also alluded to the long-rumored casino as the elephant in the room. “If that’s the ultimate plan, I’d like to know about it,” he said.
The city is acquiring the land for the arena and hotel. Once a deal is reached, the City Council will vote whether to approve it.
“I wish the best for DePaul,” Fioretti said. “I would love to see them go back to having a good basketball team. But I don’t understand this, and neither do my constituents.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 24, 2013, on page D8 of the New York edition with the headline: Critics Say Chicago Shouldn’t Aid DePaul While Shutting Down Schools.