Mayor Rahm Emanuel is blaming his decision to end, as he put it, “crony capitalism” for the parting shot he got this week from Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz.
In a transition memo to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, Wirtz argued that relations between the retiring mayor’s City Hall and the business community are “frequently strained, often contentious and disappointingly counter-productive.”
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.
He called it “punitive, regressive” and said it “runs the risk of killing businesses.” The Blackhawks owner, an investor in the Chicago Sun-Times, also took a parting shot at Emanuel for his relentless and, Wirtz argued, self-serving and destructive war of words with President Donald Trump.
Crain’s Chicago Business gave the mayor an opportunity to respond to Wirtz in print — and the mayor took it, without mincing his words.
“Look, I get it. For those who have become accustomed to the rules of the road of crony capitalism, and have had sweetheart deals and special arrangements no one else receives, it is tough when you are forced to play by the same rules as everyone else,” he wrote.
“While I am certainly not against using public investments in infrastructure as a catalyst for economic growth, I believe we must draw the line at outright corporate welfare. It is because we have invested in our economic fundamentals, not because of crony capitalism, that Chicago has led the country in corporate relocations and foreign direct investment every year for the last six years, a first for the City of Chicago.”
Wirtz spokesman Guy Chipparoni could not immediately be reached for comment on the mayor’s latest salvo.
The amusement tax controversy was not the first chapter of Emanuel vs. Wirtz.
In 2015, Emanuel’s refusal to extend an expiring United Center property tax break nixed plans for a $95 million retail-and-entertainment complex in the shadows of the stadium.
After forcing the Cubs to renovate Wrigley Field at their own expense with an influx of outfield-sign revenue, Emanuel was not about to extend the property tax break granted to the United Center at a time when the Bulls and Blackhawks were “pioneers” on the Near West Side.
The mayor also took a political beating for his proposal to use $55 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) money to build a DePaul basketball arena near McCormick Place that doubles as an “event center.” Wirtz strongly opposed Wintrust Arena because it competes for concerts against the United Center.
The financing was subsequently rearranged to use TIF money to acquire land for a hotel.
Howard Pizer, executive vice president of the United Center, said then the entertainment complex “would have been great.” But the Hawks and Bulls were not about to build it without an extended property tax break, and Emanuel “obviously wasn’t comfortable” with that.
Instead, the Bulls and Blackhawks agreed to build a standalone office building — with a ground-level retail store and a public atrium connection to the United Center — that freed up space inside the stadium for more entertainment and fan amenities.
“Sometimes I’m watching the Hawks game and I envision what it would be like to be checked by one of the Blackhawks,” Wirtz said on the day that revised office building project was announced.
“After the last few meetings with the mayor, I found out what it feels like to be checked.”
Emanuel parried: “You may have thought that was a check. In the Emanuel home, that’s the way we say, ‘I love you. Welcome home.’ At family dinners, we’re a contact sport.”
In his response to Wirtz in Crain’s, Emanuel referred to those earlier controversies as well as his decision to save $4 million-a-year by ending a tax exemption on skyboxes that had been in effect since 2005.
“Since day one, I have been clear that what other cities have done with respect to public subsidies for privately owned sports teams is a mistake. Taxpayers should not be viewed as ATMs for wealthy owners and investors,” he said.
“Predictably, when powerful private interests who were accustomed to dictating public policy did not get their way, they became dissatisfied.”
The mayor noted that, even without “corporate welfare,” as he put it, the Blackhawks and Bulls both built new training facilities near the United Center and the Wrigley renovations were all completed.
“And unlike recent cases in Milwaukee and Atlanta, the owners paid for it without any taxpayer subsidies. When you own something, you pay the costs and you reap the benefits. Welcome to capitalism and the private sector, Rocky,” he wrote.