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New measure makes Millennium Park No. 1 Midwest attraction

Chicago's Millennium Park attracted 12.9 million visitors in the second half of 2016, City Hall says. | Sun-Times file photo

Millennium Park has been Chicago’s glorious and quirky town square, almost since the moment it opened in 2004 after construction delays and cost overruns more than tripled the original pricetag — to $475 million.

Now, City Hall has the statistics to prove it: nearly 12.9 million visitors in the last six months of 2016 alone.

That makes the 23-acre expansion of Grant Park, built over a railroad right-of-way, the top tourist attraction in the Midwest and among the Top 10 in the country. It’s right up there with New York’s Central Park and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

According to City Hall, the new count was conducted by a “third-party vendor using passive electronic sensors” in people’s cellphones.

The six-month count was conducted during the surge of tourism generated by the Cubs’ march to their first World Series championship since 1908.

The count was centered around the Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as “The Bean,” and at three main entrances to Millennium Park. Statistical estimates were used to factor in visitors who do not carry cellphones.

Thanks to the new measuring stick, Millennium Park easily bumps Navy Pier, with 9 million annual visitors, as the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

That’s not surprising, considering that Millennium Park is centrally located and loaded with hundreds of free cultural events, including concerts, festivals, films, family activities, nature programs and public art.

That will only get better this year, when Blues Fest makes the move to Millennium Park June 9 through June 11 and when the Summer Dance Celebration is added on Aug. 26.

Choose Chicago CEO David Whitaker proudly announced what he called the “amazing” new numbers on Thursday during the tourism agency’s annual meeting at McCormick Place.

“It is now numerically proven that it is the No. 1 attraction — not only in the Midwest, but one of the top attractions now in the world,” Whitaker said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel added, “I couldn’t be prouder of Maggie Daley and Millennium Park hitting 13 million. You have seen it a hundred times where people from around the world come and say, `What a beautiful city. What a clean city. What a friendly city.’”

But Emanuel urged the movers and shakers in the audience to use the recruiting and training services of the Chicago Workforce Partnership and make certain that kids from all neighborhoods get a crack at jobs in the hospitality industry.

“Make sure that those jobs you have and go searching for — that people throughout Chicago in our neighborhoods have an opportunity to get a job, prove themselves to you and then get a promotion and build a career and a lifelong path for a secure middle-class job. That is our measure,” the mayor said.

The news wasn’t all rosy on the tourism front.

Choose Chicago Board Chair Desiree Rogers acknowledged what she called the ongoing “challenges” Chicago faces: an untold story, an avalanche of new hotel rooms and only 1.5 million international tourists.

“There’s a tremendous amount of additional supply, and that means hotels that have come into the marketplace that are really squeezing us a bit on price. . . . The job ahead of us is really to continue to grow faster than the hotels that are coming in place,” Rogers said.

“Many people . . . don’t know everything they need to know about Chicago and don’t know why they should come and visit,” she said. “But we know, once they get here, we’ve got ’em. We also know we’ve got more work to do on the international front . . . to ensure that same regional advertising that we’ve done in the states near us is implemented in countries farther away so that we can get those tourists into our city, because we know they tend to stay longer and spend a lot more money.”

Whitaker said it’s not enough to have 75 percent of all visitors to Chicago come from the 10 neighboring states.

“We need to expand greatly our international audience. We have 1.5 million international visitors. We need 2, 3, 4 million international visitors. We need to tell our story around the world,” he said.

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick also addressed the tourism honchos. He was in town to watch the Fighting Irish compete in the “Frozen Four,” hockey’s version of the Final Four college basketball championship, at the United Center.

Swarbrick said the keys to the tourism kingdom lie in promoting sporting events, like the NFL and NHL Drafts, the all star game of Major League Soccer and, of course, the Cubs.

“Sport is an area of tourism worth investing in. I would argue that its returns are as great or greater than any other investment you can make,” he said.

“If you totaled all of the media impressions created for your city over a year, the leading creator of those impressions is sports,” Swarbrick said. “Your remarkable pro teams. The events you host. The millions and millions of people who watch those events come away with favorable impressions of your city and are more inclined to come here and visit.”