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Lightfoot sets goal to ‘fully open’ Chicago by July 4

The Chicago Auto Show already is set to open July 15. But getting “fully open” by July 4 also could mean the return of Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago and the Air & Water Show, the city’s most popular and iconic summer events.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces the Chicago Auto Show will take place in July during a news conference on Chicago’s reopening efforts at McCormick Place on Tuesday morning, May 4, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is shown discussing Chicago’s reopening efforts during a news conerence at McCormick Place on Tuesday. The Auto Show will be the first convention held at McCormick Place since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

McCormick Place will reawaken from its 14-month, pandemic-induced slumber with the July 15 return of the Chicago Auto Show — and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her goal is to get the city “fully open” by July 4.

“I am working night and day toward this goal. … I need you to continue to be on this journey with us. And that means getting vaccinated now — as soon as possible,” Lightfoot told reporters Tuesday morning at McCormick Place, where details of the auto show return were announced.

“Every day that our COVID-19 metrics continue to tick downward brings us a day closer to being able to put this pandemic in the rearview mirror. And we are too close to accomplishing this mission to give up now. Our goal … is to be fully open by July 4th.”

Getting Chicago fully open by the July 4 weekend also could mean the return of Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago and the Air & Water Show, the city’s most popular and iconic summer events.

“Don’t skip to the end of the chapter. There’s more coming,” the mayor said.

Just last week, Lightfoot vowed to be more cautious than other major cities in reopening Chicago. She said the last thing she wanted to do is to move too quickly, only to be forced to shut things down yet again.

Asked how that jibes with her goal of being “fully open by July 4th,” the mayor cited “steady progress” in all the health metrics Chicago follows and “modeling” that suggests those trends will continue.

“If we take care of our business” and keep building vaccination rates, “I feel very confident we can get there. … We will be one of the first cities to fully and safely reopen,” she said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he shares the mayor’s optimism about the “trajectory that we’re on now” and what that means to moving toward his “Bridge Phase,” followed by Phase 5, which means a full reopening.

But, he warned: “We can’t predict the future. This virus has proven to be very challenging. … The developments of variants. The times in which it seems to surge in states like, recently, Michigan. … We all experienced November and December and January here in Illinois. So we always are on guard. We’re watching the numbers like a hawk.”

The July 15-19 auto show will be the first major convention at McCormick Place since March 6, 2020.

It won’t look the same as it’s looked for generations.

The show, normally held in February, will be shorter and smaller to reduce costs and encourage automakers to participate.

For the first time since 1901, the show will be a “hybrid,” with exhibits both indoors and out. Tickets will be sold strictly online and for a specific timed-entrance windows, to keep the crowd within capacity limits.

Attendees must wear masks, pre-register and fill out a “short medical questionnaire so we know everyone on the floor is healthy,” said David Sloan, president of the Chicago Auto Trade Association.

But Sloan said those changes will be joined by intriguing new features allowing automakers and show organizers to “get creative and try new things.”

The show was moved to McCormick Place’s west building, near Indiana Avenue, “so that we could add an outdoor element like we’ve never been able to before,” Sloan said.

“In addition to offering numerous outdoor test drives and other things going on outside, we’re seeking permission to turn Indiana Avenue into an automotive street festival in the evening of most show days, featuring local food, entertainment and, of course, sparkling new cars and trucks.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces that the Chicago Auto Show will take place in July during a news conference on Chicago’s reopening efforts at McCormick Place, Tuesday morning, May 4, 2021. The Auto Show will be the first convention to be held at McCormick Place since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker discussing the July return of the Chicago Auto show during a news conference on Chicago’s reopening efforts at McCormick Place on Tuesday morning.
Ashlee Rezin García/Sun-Times

Pritzker said the auto show has brought “smiles and excitement” to Chicago since 1901.

“The fun is back and I, for one, can’t wait,” the governor said.

“What a great day it is. We are making an important step forward,” away from the “challenges of the pandemic and toward normalcy.”

Lightfoot said she has “many memories” of 2020, but “one of the grimmest” was telling Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter about the need to shut down McCormick Place.

The massive convention complex was turned into an alternative care facility for overflow coronavirus patients that, mercifully, was never used. The facility was bankrolled by FEMA and “built by union labor,” the mayor said, noting the overflow hospital was “incredible to behold.”

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The return of conventions can’t come soon enough for city and state finances.

The losses have been staggering since the March 6, 2020 shutdown: 230 canceled events that would have drawn 3.4 million attendees; 2.2 million lost hotel room nights; $3.05 billion in lost economic impact; and $233.8 million in lost state and city taxes.

With conventions and trade shows on hold and hotel rooms empty, the McPier Authority had no choice but to use the state as its financial backstop.

The $15.2 million “unreimbursed draw-down” of state sales tax revenue was the first since the 2008 recession.

If tourism taxes rebound, a revised budget approved last week outlines a plan to “repay the state fully” and “completely replenish” $30 million in McCormick Place reserves by 2023.

Even if the recovery is delayed, the state will be fully reimbursed “by 2025 at the latest,” officials said.

As bleak as the situation seems, it could have been worse.

In September 2020, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority refinanced $118.4 million in 2021 expansion project bond debt service, the maximum amount allowed by law.

Without that refinancing, the state sales tax draw would have been nearly $130 million.