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3. Roll the dice at McCormick Place
Ending patronage and cutting waste isn’t particularly fun, so let’s do something that is: put a casino and big-time entertainment complex in the Lakeside Center, the oldest McCormick Place structure and a building that has outlived its usefulness as a trade show venue.
The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, known as McPier, is in the toilet, and the reasons are many: too much patronage, questionable contracts, unwieldy union work rules, and fierce competition from Orlando and Las Vegas, which provide far greater subsidies to their convention centers. Given the miserable state of Illinois’s finances, we can’t count on more sales taxes to bail out a convention business that everyone agrees is critical to the city’s economy.
Even with all the problems at McCormick Place, conventioneers still want to come to town. Chicago is located in the center of the country, with great shopping, restaurants, and nightlife. The newer McCormick Place buildings are spacious, modern, and beautiful. Add a casino and some top-line performers and you’re back in business.
Daley has flirted with casinos since taking office in 1989. His last proposal, in 2004, called for a casino that would generate up to $700 million a year in state tax revenues and another $300 million for local governments.
The moral arguments against gambling? Puh-leeze. We’re surrounded by casinos, racetracks, off-track betting parlors, 9,000 different lottery games, and now, perhaps, video poker at your local saloon. Can we get a gaming license through the Illinois General Assembly? The state is broke, and the leaders of both houses are Chicagoans. What’s the point of being the Cloutmeister if you can’t get a no-brainer like this done?
The big casino operators will pay handsomely for the privilege. This ain’t no parking meter giveaway; this is the deal that keeps on dealing. Hire experts to run the place and give the city a healthy cut. Employ Chicagoans to build the damn thing and work there. And watch the Near South Side prosper, the trade shows flock back to Chicago, and the tax money roll in.
4. Make Chicago a mecca for same-sex marriage
Deb Mell, a state representative, says she has to leave Chicago and go to Iowa to get married. Really? Iowa is the farm team. Just because Mell is Patti Blagojevich’s sister is no reason to make her go into exile to get hitched.
This is a mayoral slam dunk. “Rich Daley is the poster boy for the gay rights community,” says Rick Garcia, political director for Equality Illinois, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. “He’s the mayor of America’s major city. He’s Irish, he’s Catholic, and he has influence all over the country. This is real to him. It’s about protecting families.”
The state decides marriage law, but counties issue licenses. Six years ago, Daley said he was all for Cook County handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the county clerk, David Orr, said he was game to try it. So let’s go. (Officially, Orr will be committing a misdemeanor, Garcia says, so it would be nice if the mayor paid Orr’s fines.)
The country is fast coming around on this, and so is our state. In 2004, a Copley News Service poll found that more than three-quarters of Illinoisans supported either same-sex marriage or civil unions. The Illinois House legalized civil unions last year, but the bill is stalled in the state senate.
That’s not good enough. By their actions, Daley and Orr can push the Illinois legislature to pass what many consider a basic civil right protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Just think: Couples would flock to Chicago to get married. And who knows? Maybe they’d settle here, raise families, pay taxes, and contribute to the city’s vibrant civic and cultural life. Besides, Chicago is a great place for a honeymoon. After getting married, the newlyweds could take in a show and hit the tables down at McCormick Place.
5. Take a hammer to that TIF piggy bank
Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader have done the heavy lifting on this subject. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts throw about $500 million a year into a special fund controlled largely by the mayor. In TIF districts, property tax revenue that would normally go to the city, the schools, and the other taxing bodies is frozen. When TIF properties increase in value, the extra tax revenue they generate goes into the pot for improvement projects.
The TIF fund was intended for the development of blighted neighborhoods, but over the years it has devolved into a kind of mayoral secret stash kept off the budget books, with much of the money paid out to clout-connected developers and big corporations for special projects. The Reader stated that at the start of 2009, the city had more than $1 billion available in the TIF fund.
TIFs are among the mayor’s favorite things, so letting go won’t be easy. Scott Waguespack, the 32nd Ward alderman who cosponsored last year’s ordinance that will begin to put TIF documents online, wants the city to suspend current TIF spending and use that money to address critical issues, including schools, housing, and parks.
“We’re in a crisis here, and we don’t even know how much money is out there,” Waguespack says. “We need to find out what’s been committed and what’s available and review how we might use some of that money now. Then we’ve got to change the TIF guidelines to get the program back to its original intent.”
And dipping into the TIF fund now isn’t like selling a valuable asset and then using half the money to plug one year’s budget gap, as the city did by privatizing the Skyway, Waguespack says. This is money that government already had coming, and TIFs can continue to generate development funds for years to come.