DePaul arena — Beautiful ‘game-changer’ or ‘foolhardy project’?

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Artists rendering of DePaul’s new Wintrust Arena / Arie Crown Theater. Supplied.

The 10,000-seat, $164 million basketball arena for DePaul University that will double as an “event center” for McCormick Place will open this fall with a pair of gala fundraisers, officials said Monday.

After School Matters, the award winning arts and education program founded by former First Lady Maggie Daley, will hold its annual fundraiser at Wintrust Arena on Sept. 18. Last year, the event drew 800 movers and shakers to Navy Pier.

That will be followed by an Oct. 2 fund-raiser by the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame. The annual event drew 900 donors to McCormick Place West last year.

A “major corporate user,” Work Day Rising, has also booked Wintrust Arena for “multiple days” in mid-October in conjunction with the trade show it’s holding elsewhere at McCormick Place, officials said.

David Kennedy, assistant general manager entertainment at Wintrust Arena, said he is also “holding dates” between October and December for promoters of three concerts and for a “family show.” He refused to identify the performers.

“We’re not really competing with the United Center, Soldier Field or Wrigley Field that have tens of thousands of folks. We have the flexibility to shrink the venue down a little bit to what they call a half-concert for a few thousand people or to go to the larger number of 7,000 to 9,000,” Kennedy said.

Artists rendering of DePaul’s new Wintrust Arena / Arie Crown Theater. Supplied.

Artists rendering of DePaul’s new Wintrust Arena / Arie Crown Theater. Supplied.

Coupled with 17 home games for DePaul men’s basketball and “six-to-eight” games for the Blue Demons’ women’s team, Kennedy said he’s more than half-way home toward the goal of booking the arena for 50 events during the first twelve months.

“It’s a beautiful new venue. It’s a beautiful new campus. Two additional hotels under construction. The Marriott Marquis will be open late summer. New restaurants just popped open down the street. Motor Row is invigorating these days. We’re excited. I have full confidence of being able to get to 50 events,” he said.

Kennedy noted that the arena doesn’t open until October and many concerts are booked just a few months out.

“I can’t tell you how many concerts I’ve got booked in January, February and March because the industry just doesn’t work that way,” he said.

“We’ve got multiple trade shows and conventions that want to expand and pay rent in the arena, new shows included. But, they’re waiting for the DePaul schedule. It’s plates spinning in the air. … Once the scheduling of your anchor tenant comes, then all of the other pieces come together.”

Even if the 50-booking benchmark is reached, Chicago-based sports business consultant Marc Ganis predicted that most of the events would be “economically meaningless, both to the facility and to Chicago taxpayers.”

“I fully expect they will do whatever they can in the first few years to try and gin up a positive spin because this was such a foolhardy project in the first place,” said Ganis, who has opposed the project from the get-go.

“It was a ridiculous use of limited public money at a time when we’re raising taxes to unprecedented levels and still see no light at the end of the tunnel. Every now and then, governments decide to build vanity projects. That’s what this is.”

Artists rendering of new Wintrust Arena in a concert configuration. | Provided

Four years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel argued that he wasn’t using public money to build a basketball arena for DePaul as much as DePaul was “subsidizing” an “event center” that McCormick Place needs to compete, thus freeing millions to renovate Navy Pier.

The agreement calls for DePaul to contribute $70 million toward construction and pay an annual rent of $25,000 a game for men’s basketball and $15,000 a game for women’s.

DePaul gets first right of refusal on available dates, but only after McPier blocks off convention and assembly dates it needs and presents the schedule to the university on April 1 of each year.

McPier officials have pegged annual operating costs at $3.7 million and estimated that the rent and non-logo-related concessions from DePaul games—which go to McPier —would cover one-third of that.

At the time, McPier officials claimed to have commissioned consulting studies that concluded the arena would “break even” the year it opens and make $1 million by year five.

The studies assumed that attendance for DePaul basketball games that drew roughly 3,200 fans to All-State Arena would triple at the new venue.

“This is a game-changer for them in terms of the amount of students and alumni. The Green Line, the Red Line. We’re in walking distance from both of those lines. …We’re excited about the access and truly feel that people will come,” Kennedy said.

“The Big East Conference is huge. They had seven teams in the tournament this year. From November to March, we’re gonna have seven of those powerhouses here in Chicago. … It’s much easier to get to. You’re not having to sit in traffic all the way out there. It can only go up.”

Emanuel first proposed using $55 million in tax-increment-financing funds to help finance the 10,000 seat arena.

The project promptly became a symbol of what critics called the mayor’s misplaced priorities.

The drumbeat got so loud in the wake of the mayor’s decision to close a record 50 public schools, Emanuel rearranged the financing so the TIF subsidy would be used to acquire land for the project and surrounding hotels, instead of to build the stadium.


THE WATCHDOGS: To make way for DePaul arena, taxpayers paid $8 million to move historic home, Dec. 5, 2015

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