Not so fast? Alderpersons seek to wave the caution flag on mayor’s NASCAR plan

Something this important is worthy of public legislative debate.

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The announcement of a NASCAR race coming to Chicago drew a crowd for a panel discussion on the popularity of the sport.

Alderpersons seek to put the brakes on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plans to bring NASCAR to Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Whenever Mayor Lori Lightfoot makes a big announcement, beware of the details that are almost certain to tumble out later.

This time, it’s the mayor’s deal to host NASCAR races downtown in the summer of 2023 and 2024. The splashy news conference two weeks ago — complete with NASCAR automobiles and drivers — hyped the race’s alleged economic benefit to the city and how good the event would be for Chicago.

What she did not say then — but certainly knew — is that hosting the event would mean the 2.2–mile racecourse around Grant Park would be shut down for two weeks for “non-race event activities associated with the NASCAR Cup Series,” according to the organization’s agreement with the Chicago Park District.

A trio of downtown alderpersons — arguing that City Council members were kept out of the loop while the mayor’s office and the park district negotiated the NASCAR plan — are howling about this, and rightly so.

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As representatives of the public, they deserved the chance to scrutinize the plan in advance and offer input.

And also to question if Chicago’s $500,000 take — plus 15% of net commissions on concession and merchandise, and $2 per admission ticket sold — is enough to justify NASCAR squatting on two-plus miles of a prime downtown location for half a month in the city’s high season.

Would alderpersons have killed the deal on account of the length of the road closures? Maybe, maybe not. But something this important is worthy of public legislative debate.

‘What’s in it for the taxpayer?’

The NASCAR event would be held from June 22 to July 5 next year. And it would stretch from Roosevelt Road to Randolph Street — 13 blocks — and from Michigan Avenue to DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

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That’s a pretty big chunk of public space.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose South Side ward ends on the north edge of Roosevelt Road, questioned if the $500,000 permit fee to be paid by NASCAR and the revenue-sharing piece with the organization would cover the costs of traffic workers and security.

“My constituents demand real public engagement to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of what’s being proposed before we tie up Grant Park and our public streets for a solid two weeks over the next three years,” Dowell said.

As chair of the City Council Budget Committee, Dowell certainly shouldn’t have been left to guess about the event’s economics.

“How much will NASCAR pay beyond the insignificant $500,000 permit?” Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) asked in a recent email to the Sun-Times. “How much is being budgeted for park and infrastructure restoration? How much is being paid to offset the public safety costs? What’s in it for the taxpayer?”

Not a complete shutdown, but who knows?

We’ve seen this before from the mayor, most notably in her bid to create a Chicago casino.

She pitched it as a near-panacea for the city's pension crisis that had to be approved quickly, otherwise the city risked financial doom.

But later we all learned the casino, once up and running in a few years, will contribute only 9% to the $2.3 billion in yearly pension payments.

Better than nothing, but not quite the solution as billed. And nothing major would have been lost had there been more time taken for the public and the City Council to really examine the nuts and bolts and possibly push for a better deal (and location).

The same could be said for the NASCAR plan. In the wake of the alderpersons’ complaints, Lightfoot said there wouldn’t be a full shutdown of the racing site, likening it to this summer’s Taste of Chicago, which “shut down a part of the [event] footprint but left the vast majority of Grant Park open.”

That’s good to hear, but that the exact terms of the shutdown are unknown is as troubling as the fact they weren’t vetted and negotiated with the public, businesses and alderpersons before the announcement.

Meanwhile, where does all this lead? For now, to a potential mayoral showdown with Alds. Reilly, Dowell and Sofia King (4th), who are drafting legislation that would require the mayor to “re-insert aldermen into the special event approval process in their respective wards,” Reilly said.

That might not be a bad idea, given what Lightfoot said on the stage at a major special event, Lollapalooza, just last Sunday. All that was missing was a cape and scepter:

“I’m here to tell you, by decree, we’re going to make sure that Lolla continues in the future. So I’m here to tell you that Lolla, all the great work, all the fabulous music, will continue for 10 more years.”

“Decree” is an odd word for Lightfoot to choose, especially in that feel-good setting.

But given what we’ve seen from her lately, not a surprising one.

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