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Blackhawks owner unloads on Rahm Emanuel in transition memo to Lightfoot

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rocky Wirtz, Chairman for the Chicago Blackhawks talk at the United Center last year. | Maria Cardona/ Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has basked in the glow of a parade of corporate relocations to downtown Chicago and a tourism industry that attracted a record 57.7 million visitors last year.

Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz tells a dramatically different story in his transition memo to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot.

According to Wirtz, there are “serious problems” between the retiring mayor’s City Hall and the business community.

Relations “are frequently strained, often contentious and disappointingly counter-productive. This does not appear to be the case in many other cities, both big and small, where progressive mayors have open and respectful dialogue with their city’s employer base,” Wirtz wrote in an April 15 letter to Lightfoot.

Wirtz, an investor in the Chicago Sun-Times, argued the business community “should not fear its mayor and no mayor should be intimidated by any one business.”

“The balance needs to exist and Chicago, for the past two administrations, has been out of balance,” he wrote of Emanuel and his predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“Confidence, trust and transparency need to be restored. Given the financial and social issues facing Chicago today, failing to restore the sense of balance will make overcoming these challenges even more difficult.”

To mend fences, Wirtz suggests Lightfoot commit to holding one breakfast meeting each month with no more than 10 business leaders at a time to “engage in structured discussions around concerns” on both sides.

The monthly meetings should be scheduled “well in advance, similar to corporate board meetings,” he said.

“We need candid, open dialogue about both short- and long-term goals for our city. We need to be on the same page and moving in the same direction,” he wrote.

Wirtz also seized the opportunity to air his longstanding beef about Emanuel’s two-year-old plan to raise the city’s amusement tax on large venues to bankroll a break for small theaters.

Under the restructuring, venues seating over 1,500 people were saddled with a 9 percent ticket tax. The change did not affect ticket prices for sporting events, which are already stuck with a 9 percent tax, plus Cook County’s 3 percent amusement tax, but it did impact the concerts held at the teams’ stadiums.

“It is, in my view, punitive, regressive and runs the risk of killing businesses,” Wirtz wrote.

“If an event becomes too expensive for a family to go to, then that same family will not come to Chicago, not stay in a hotel, not eat in a restaurant, not take a cab to the venue and not buy food and merchandise. The city, supporting businesses and venue owners and their employees all suffer.”

If the amusement tax had a “clearly defined purpose, it would make everyone’s sacrifice more palatable,” Wirtz wrote.

“For example, designating a portion of taxes on sporting events to the construction of athletic facilities in underserved neighborhoods. Or a percentage of the tax on concert tickets to fund music programs in- under-served and under-funded Chicago Public Schools. Clear purposes that create positive synergy,” he wrote.

“Sadly, Chicago has already pushed these taxes to the highest in the country. Therefore under the current structure, there is little room to work. But in a re-structure, there would be willingness to perhaps establish growth funds, partnerships or seek other creative and mutually beneficial solutions.”

Emanuel’s communications director Shannon Breymaier fired back at Wirtz.

“From day one, the mayor has been consistently pro-economic growth and job creation, which has led to a record that speaks for itself,” Breymaier wrote in an email to the Sun-Times. “What he won’t support is the corporate welfare that Rocky Wirtz seeks.”

Last year, Wirtz sent a political message to Emanuel, contributing a total of $200,000 to the campaign of then-mayoral challenger Paul Vallas (the checks came from five Wirtz-owned firms).

The shot across the bow was delivered weeks before Emanuel chose political retirement over the uphill battle for a third-term.

In his letter to Lightfoot, the Blackhawks owner took a parting shot at Emanuel for his relentless and, Wirtz argued, self-serving and destructive war of words with President Donald Trump.

In the subsection titled, “End the grandstanding,” Wirtz advised Lightfoot: “Stop the rhetoric on national and international issues and focus on Chicago.”

“For the last few years, the mayor’s office has, apparently in search of political benefit, openly provoked the president of the United States and always with great fanfare in front of the Chicago media,” Wirtz wrote.

“The president has, in turn, fired back each time before a global media audience reminding the world that Chicago is rife with murders and out-of-control crime. The world is watching and seeing a constant stream of negative stories about our city which we do not have the ability to counter. We need to protect and promote our brand with pride and discipline.”

In response, Breymaier noted that Chicago “will always be a Trump-free zone.”