McPier names CEO to lead convention expansion

Larita Clark, a 36-year employee of the agency, replaces Lori Healey.

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Larita Clark

Larita Clark

Leadership Greater Chicago

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency that runs McCormick Place, said Tuesday its board has appointed Larita Clark as its CEO. Clark has been an employee of the agency since 1984, rising to the job of chief financial officer.

She has been its acting CEO since her predecessor, Lori Healey, resigned in October.

Commonly called McPier, the agency said it settled on Clark after conducting a search that included “a review of joint recommendations” from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. They share appointment powers for members of the McPier board.

Cynthia McCafferty, spokesperson for McPier, said it did not use an outside search firm because that process has not worked for the agency. But she said the board considered several candidates and that Clark told her she had nine interviews during the hiring process.

McCafferty said the board will discuss a compensation package for Clark at its meeting Feb. 18. Clark’s last known salary was $201,827 as CFO in 2017.

Clark lives in Indiana, McCafferty said. While McPier has no residency policy, she said Clark plans to move to Chicago.

Brett J. Hart, board chair and executive vice president at United Airlines, said, “Larita Clark brings outstanding operational and financial expertise that made her the right choice for MPEA. We have complete confidence that under Larita’s leadership, the authority will continue to deliver outstanding service to our customers.”

The agency said Clark will continue to oversee modernization efforts. Last year, McPier failed to get the Legislature to approve an expanded city restaurant tax to support a new facility and the possible demolition or reuse of the old Lakeside Center, the oldest part of its convention complex.

A source familiar with the selection process, who asked not to be named, said Clark “knows McCormick Place — every square inch of it — like the back of her hand” after moving up the ladder at McPier.

Board members were so impressed by her presentation, they opted not to conduct a nationwide search, the source said. Their vote to approve Clark was unanimous.

“She understands the need for continued growth. She put together a vision statement that blew people away,” the source said.

“If you’ve got good people under your nose, why not give them a shot.”

Prior to her appointment, Clark presented a specific plan for each building and for capital projects to increase square footage.

The source refused to share Clark’s plan for the underutilized Lakeside Center, except to say that “nobody” at McPier wants to see a Chicago casino in or anywhere near there for fear it would draw visitors off the convention floor.

“Larita Clark has outstanding credentials and a deep understanding of MPEA and the convention industry, and I am confident she is the right choice to lead this organization,” Pritzker said in a statement.“With decades of leadership and financial experience at the authority, I know that Larita will be a strong partner as we work to attract more conventions to Illinois, grow our tourism industry and enhance MPEA’s campus and the surrounding communities.”

“The McCormick Place campus is critical to Chicago’s thriving tourism and convention industry, and Larita Clark brings the necessary leadership experience and financial acumen to ensure the continued success of this economic engine for our city and state,” Lightfoot said. “Under the leadership of Larita and her team, the campus has grown, maintained a strong financial standing, and strengthened the diversity of its workforce and supplier base. I have no doubt that MPEA will continue to expand, increasing economic opportunities for every community across our great city.”

Four years ago, the search for a new city tourism chief was conducted by a 20-member committee led by Desiree Rogers, who was board chair of Choose Chicago. The winning candidate was David Whitaker, chief marketing officer at Brand USA.

Whitaker replaced Don Welsh, who was hailed as a tourism “super star” before becoming embroiled in a contract dispute that prompted him to leave Chicago to become president and CEO of Destination Market Association International, a global trade association for tourism bureaus.

Whitaker was rewarded with a base salary of $380,000 a year, but his total, five-year package included an annual 25 percent bonus for meeting unspecified “tourism targets.”

The job of McPier CEO is equally important in selling McCormick Place and Wintrust Arena as a destination for conventions, large meetings, concerts and special events and maintaining Navy Pier as one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

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