Taxpayers covered millions in park gym costs Jesse White promised to pay for
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
When Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White unveiled plans nine years ago for a North Side fieldhouse that would bear his name, he promised that his private charitable foundation and its donors would pick up the bulk of the multimillion-dollar tab.
But that’s not how things turned out. Instead, records show, taxpayers paid all but a small fraction of the cost.
White, who will be sworn in Monday for a record sixth consecutive term as secretary of state, pledged $10 million to build the athletic facility in partnership with the Chicago Park District on part of the former Cabrini-Green public housing project in White’s 27th Ward political power base.
His foundation actually ended up paying only about $650,000. The fieldhouse, originally pegged at $15 million, cost about $12.2 million. Chicago and Illinois taxpayers ended up covering $11.5 million of that.
The 29,000-square-foot facility at 410 W. Chicago Ave. opened in 2014 and, in addition to housing a park district gymnasium, provides a home for White’s famed Jesse White Tumblers and headquarters for his Jesse White Foundation, which pays the park district just $1 in annual rent. The park district covers all utility, custodial and maintenance costs, records show.
White’s groups also get exclusive use of many of the facilities for several hours after school and on Sunday mornings. And his foundation controls most of the second floor.
So why didn’t White, a Democrat who’s one of Illinois’ most popular politicians, have to put up the money he promised? He was having trouble raising the private funding he promised for the center. So elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, came to his rescue with tax money.
In late 2010, then-Mayor Richard Daley got the Chicago City Council’s approval to underwrite the project with $5 million in so-called tax-increment financing diverted from property tax collections. Within months, the TIF funding was doubled to $10 million with help from a push by Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), a political protégé of White who’s also a volunteer Tumblers coach.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, on his first day in office in 2015, had frozen all discretionary state grant spending. But Rauner made an exception and greenlighted a $1.5 million grant for the Chicago Park District. The grant agreement didn’t specifically mention White’s foundation. But records show the park district used the money to bail out the foundation for a construction loan it owed on the center.
In addition to Daley, Burnett and Rauner, the politicians who helped ensure taxpayers would pay for most of the White center included Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and two Democratic state lawmakers whose districts include the fieldhouse — Sen. Patricia Van Pelt and Rep. Arthur Turner Jr.
Neither White nor parks officials responded specifically to questions about the center’s financing. In written statements, they praised the project, with White calling it a “gold-standard model of a public-private initiative” and a parks spokesman saying it offers “unprecedented recreational opportunities to children and families” in the neighborhood.
White, 84, might be as well known for the Jesse White Tumblers program he started six decades ago as for political success. The secretary of state’s office’s website says more than 17,500 students have been involved with the gymnastics teams that perform in Chicago and around the world.
The community center was approved by the park district board in February 2010. A staff outline prepared for the board and signed by top parks officials said White’s foundation “has pledged $10 million towards the $15 million development budget.”
The fieldhouse opened in 2014. At a ceremony, Burnett recalled how he got a promise from Emanuel “on Day 1” that the new mayor would continue to support the project his predecessor had backed. After that, Burnett said, “Everything was pushed through for the tumbling team without any hesitation.”
White had endorsed Emanuel in the crowded field for mayor in 2011.
Emanuel spokesperson Jennifer Martinez says the mayor considered the fieldhouse an “important recreational asset.
“This was absolutely the right decision since today it serves as a tremendous community asset,” Martinez says.
In a written statement, Burnett says: “The Jesse White Field House and Community Center is a public facility that was paid for with public and private funds. I applaud Jesse White, city and state leaders, and private, concerned citizens for bringing this fabulous facility to the Near North Side.”
At the 2014 ribbon-cutting, White cited people he said had been instrumental in moving the project along, including Burke, who now faces a corruption charge but at the time was the longtime chairman of the council’s finance committee, with a life-or-death grip on city spending. White said then that Burke was “helpful in coming forward with the dollars that we needed.”
Burke resigned as finance committee chairman earlier this month after being charged by federal prosecutors with shaking down a Burger King franchise owner in his ward in an effort to get legal work for the alderman’s law firm.
White also praised Jill Takiff Hirsh, then a board member of White’s foundation and chairman of the First Bank of Highland Park, which provided a $1.5 million lifeline when the foundation was short of cash to complete the project in 2014.
Paperwork for a bank line of credit to White’s foundation was completed on May 27, 2014, the day Madigan introduced a budget bill in the House that included an appropriation for unspecified capital projects sponsored by lawmakers. One $1.5 million grant carved out of that ended up going to the park district and was used to repay the bank loan to White’s foundation.
State records list Van Pelt and Turner as sponsors of the grant. Van Pelt first won election in 2012 after White endorsed her in the Democratic primary over an incumbent.
Madigan’s budget bill also gave White an opportunity to do a favor for the speaker. With a budget crisis looming, it insulated $35 million earmarked for school construction projects, including one in Madigan’s Southwest Side house district, from future cuts.
The money was put into the budget for White’s office. That’s how it escaped the freeze on state grants that Rauner imposed the following year.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says the parks grant that ultimately went to the White center was unrelated to the school-funding issue, an attempt to address “serious overcrowding.”
Maneuvering over financing for the White fieldhouse continued even after its opened in the fall of 2014. Quinn, whose re-election campaign got $75,000 from White, lost to Rauner that November. Before leaving office, Quinn’s staff rushed to complete paperwork for the grant.
“THIS IS A PRIORITY PROJECT PER THE GOV. PLEASE CALL AND SEND SURVEY TODAY,” read an email in all capital letters written to Quinn staffers on Dec. 29, 2014, by Mary Feagans, a lobbyist for the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which handled the grant.
A Quinn spokesman says the former governor didn’t get involved in details of individual grants.
The money wasn’t dispensed before Rauner took office and imposed the grant freeze. But the White foundation needed the money to pay back Hirsh’s bank. In February 2015, Feagans and Rauner budget officials began getting inquiries about the status of the grant, state emails show. Within a month, the hold on the grant was lifted.
“Please consider this email approval to move forward with the $1.5 million grant to the Chicago Park District for the Jesse White Community Center as these costs have been incurred for the project,” a Rauner budget official wrote Feagans.
Of dozens of grants suspended by Rauner, the White center grant was one of only two the new governor agreed to let through.
White’s foundation received another financial boost related to the center in 2015. The state grant had cut the foundation’s total cost to $1.3 million. But records show that it got about half of that amount from an escrow fund that held unspent money for the project. That dropped the final cost to Whites foundation to about $650,000.
MORE FROM THE WATCHDOGS
Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo are reporters for the Better Government Association.