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Alderman demands Council hearing on $55M Navy Pier TIF ‘trickery’

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks at a community meeting. File Photo. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks at a community meeting. File Photo. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

A “blind-sided” South Side alderman demanded Friday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel be held accountable for using $55 million in tax-increment-financing money earmarked to acquire land for a hotel near McCormick Place to renovate Navy Pier.

Emanuel initially proposed using the TIF subsidy to build a 10,000-seat DePaul basketball arena that will double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

When the project became a symbol of what critics called the mayor’s misplaced priorities after the closing of 50 public schools, the financing was rearranged so the TIF subsidy would be used to acquire land for the project and surrounding hotels, instead of to build the stadium.

Now, the Better Government Association and Crain’s Chicago Business have disclosed a dollar-for-dollar shift of that TIF money to rebuild Navy Pier, a major tourist attraction that is not in a blighted area, as was intended for TIF districts.

That infuriated Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward includes McCormick Place. She is demanding City Council hearings.

“This is outrageous. I worked with them in good faith. To see this kind of trickery is disheartening,” Dowell said Friday.

“For a flip-flop to be at play here where the money didn’t go where it was supposed to go and instead went to Navy Pier — I’m really furious about that because I worked in good faith with these people. It’s a potential stain on me. I have a pristine reputation. I do not like being put in the middle of something like that.”

In an email to her constituents, Dowell said: “I have been blindsided by this administration and the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority and its outrageous actions.”

McPier CEO Lori Healey and retiring deputy mayor Steve Koch, who crafted the financing deal, could not be reached for comment. Navy Pier CEO Marilynn Gardner refused to comment.

In an emailed statement, the mayor’s office maintained that the city reimbursed McPier “for eligible expenses related to the new hotel being built to support the increased business at McCormick Place and the number of new developments in the area.”

“MPEA was required to demonstrate that the funds were used to reimburse for that project, which they did,” the statement said.

“As was discussed publicly at the time, this move also made it possible for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority to invest in the Centennial Plan at Navy Pier, helping ensure it remains a top national tourist attraction and economic driver for the city of Chicago.”

During a May 2013 news conference at McCormick Place to announce the project, Emanuel argued that he was not 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.

“If DePaul was not investing $70 million as a major anchor tenant, we would have to come up with the resources [to build the arena and] I would not have the ability to transfer resources to Navy Pier and do the revitalization,” Emanuel told reporters at McCormick Place.

“It creates huge opportunity and, more importantly, you could not do Navy Pier without their participation.”

The mayor never mentioned that the TIF money was going to Navy Pier.