This is how it is supposed to work.
A business sees an opportunity for growth. It goes for it, on its own dime. City Hall plays backup if the project looks good for the city, maybe helping the business assemble the land and upgrading transportation. But nobody gets a handout. Nobody gets a big tax break.
So it goes on Chicago’s West Side, in the shadow of the United Center, where it was announced Thursday that the Bulls and Blackhawks will build an office building with retail space, and where the Blackhawks also may build a $50 million practice facility.
It looks good for the Bulls and the Blackhawks and — as much as anything because of what the two teams will not get — it looks good for Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to extend a property tax break due to expire next year, forcing the teams to scale down their ambitions, which is fine by us. Chicagoans are tired of handouts to the big boys.
Just yesterday, it seemed that every time a major business wanted to kick it up a notch in town — expand or renovate or just move in — it demanded a generous tax break and City Hall acquiesced.
But that didn’t work for the Chicago Cubs when Tribune Company owned the team. This page howled against schemes to grant the Cubs tax subsidies to help finance the renovation of Wrigley Field. The political class got nervous and backed off. Then Emanuel, newly elected as mayor, made it clear there would be no tax considerations for the Cubs, though he did allow the team to use city land to expand the ballpark’s footprint.
The tax-breaks game worked a better for DePaul University when it decided to build a new basketball arena, but the sour taste left by that deal no doubt added to Emanuel’s reluctance to grant such tax breaks in the future.
The mayor was hammered when he proposed to use $55 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) money to build the basketball arena and he backed off. But he still sweetened the pot for DePaul by using TIF money to acquire land for a hotel nearby.
Every City Hall tax break for a deep-pocket business that can manage quite well on its own is a slap in the face of ordinary Chicagoans who struggle to pay their own taxes.
The new United Center deal looks good. Chicago taxpayers can’t complain. Let’s hope it is a model for things to come.
No more favors for the favored few.