Here’s a good rule of thumb for Chicago: Don’t hand over one of the world’s great parks for absolutely nothing to a wildly profitable $10 billion-a-year business.
Must we even explain this?
Sadly, yes. Yes we must.
When the National Football League held its NFL Draft at the tail end of April, the Chicago Park District waived a whopping $937,500 in rent for Grant Park and nearby parkland.
When the Chicago Tribune asked the Chicago Park District why it did not charge the NFL rent, the Park District pretended that this was just business as usual. The district, a spokesperson said, “has a long history and tradition of hosting amazing events within our beautiful parks.”
But when pressed for examples, the Park District cited only the Taste of Chicago, the Blues Fest, the Air and Water Show, the Bud Billiken Parade and the Puerto Rican Festival. All these events are run by nonprofit groups of modest means — not the exuberantly profitable NFL — or by the city itself. The Park District did not cite a single example of another highly profitable private business that got free use of lakefront parkland.
In reality, the Draft Town arrangement more closely resembles the sweet deal Lollapalooza got under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, which included paying no entertainment taxes for seven years.
Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism agency, says no taxpayer money was spent on the NFL event, which sounds good, but we’ll have to take their word on it. They won’t show us — or you — the books. Choose Chicago is an “independent” nonprofit that insists it does not have to abide by public records laws though it gets most of its money from state and local government.
Choose Chicago isn’t the only unacceptably secretive quasi-private operation in town, by the way. Navy Pier Inc., which runs Navy Pier, operates in the shadows in just the same way, refusing to turn over records to the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.
Was Draft Town good for Chicago? Yes. Maybe. Who knows?
The NFL says it filled 1,000 hotel rooms, and many restaurants did well. And football fans certainly enjoyed Draft Town’s tents and exhibits. But other events and businesses downtown suffered as streets were shut off and traffic was slowed to a standstill.
Hosting big events is what big cities do. We get that. And we’re all for a party. That’s a big reason we live here.
But how does a city deep in a financial crisis blow off $937,500 in rent? And what exactly did Chicago get out of Draft Town?
Who knows? We’re not allowed in the huddle.