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Lori Lightfoot to be sworn in at Wintrust Arena May 20

Lori Lightfoot celebrates at her election night rally at the Hilton Chicago after defeating Toni Preckwinkle in the Chicago mayoral election, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ever since Mayor Rahm Emanuel first proposed using $55 million in tax-increment-financing funds to help finance a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place, the project has been a symbol of what critics call the mayor’s misplaced priorities.

The drumbeat got so loud, Emanuel rearranged the financing so the TIF subsidy would be used to acquire land for the project and surrounding hotels, instead of to build the stadium.

Now, Wintrust Arena will be a symbol of something else for Chicago that has nothing to do with Emanuel: political renewal.

Mayor-elect Lori E. Lightfoot has chosen the 10,387-seat arena as the site of her May 20 inauguration as Chicago’s 56th mayor.

The ceremony that includes swearing in ceremonies for city Treasurer-elect Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Clerk Anna Valencia and Chicago’s 50 newly-elected aldermen will be held at 10:30 a.m. that morning.

After the inauguration, Lightfoot and her wife, Amy Eshleman, will welcome members of the public to a 2 p.m. open house in the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall, just as Emanuel, and former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington did.

Ticketing and additional event details will be announced in early May.

Emanuel rolled the dice — and won — with an outdoor inauguration. He was sworn in at Millennium Park on a cloudless May 16, 2011.

Lightfoot’s decision to choose Wintrust as the site of her historic swearing-in will allow her to fill the place without worrying about Chicago’s notoriously unpredictable weather.

Still, it’s somewhat ironic, given the controversy that surrounded the project.

In 2013, Emanuel argued that he wasn’t 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 said then.

At the time, McPier officials claimed to have commissioned a consulting study that concluded the arena would “break even” the year it opens and make $1 million by year five.

The agreement calls for DePaul to contribute $70 million toward $173 million in construction costs and pay an annual rent of $25,000 a game for men’s basketball and $15,000 a game for women’s. DePaul will also get first right of refusal on available dates, but only after McPier blocks off convention and assembly dates it needs and presents the schedule to the university on April 1 of each year.

McPier officials have pegged annual operating costs at $3.7 million and estimated that the rent and non-logo-related concessions from DePaul games – which go to McPier – would cover one-third of that.

At a 2015 groundbreaking ceremony, local Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) branded the TIF subsidy a “non-issue.”

“They switched it to the hotel and the purchase of the land. TIF money is being used the way TIF money is supposed to be used. It’s supposed to support economic development, job creation, and it’s doing just that with the creation of 7,500 construction jobs and over 2,500 permanent jobs,” she said on that day.

Dowell said then she had no doubt the event center will be busy enough to make money and justify the public investment.

“DePaul games, MPEA events. It could be a concert venue. Perhaps large church conventions could use them. The public schools for championship games, public league games. I’m sure there won’t be a problem filling the stadium,” she said.