Experts pessimistic on Chicago’s $650 million McCormick Place expansion

Developers and city officials envision $250 million of annual growth, but the figure assumes that a new arena will lure conventions and draw full houses for basketball games.

March 07, 2016 |
Experts pessimistic on Chicago’s $650 million McCormick Place expansion

The new DePaul Arena at McCormick Place Event Center. Courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

After a decade and a half of downturn, Chicago envisions a new boom period for its South Loop convention center district. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, known as McPier, is revamping McCormick Place, adding a hotel and arena through a $650 million McCormick Place Event Center expansion project.

Gensler designed the hotel, the 1,200-room, $450 million Marriott Marquis. The arena, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, is a basketball venue for DePaul, the city’s Division-I college hoops team. McPier funded a study that says the new buildings could generate $250 million in spending per year.

That figure, though, is fairly optimistic. The Chicago Tribune reports that experts are doubting the project, saying that the investments will ultimately cost taxpayers.

The McPier study has a few faulty assumptions. One, it is based on DePaul averaging nearly 10,000 fans a game, almost triple its current attendance. Two, McPier plans on using the arena for conventions, but studies have said that arenas are poor hosts for conventions due to their fixed seating. If the arena struggles to make money either in terms of basketball or conventions, then the hotel will have to make up that difference. 

Stadiums have been found to be unsuccessful drivers of economic growth, which is an issue because McPier has already borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars and maxed out its debt limit. 

"It was a dumb idea when it was proposed, it was a dumb idea when they approved it, and it will be a dumb idea in the future," Marc Ganis, a Chicago consultant who specializes in sports, said in the Tribune piece.

The Tribune has much more detail on the project, which is set to open in 2017.

Several issues have arisen with concerning the development over the last few years, including eminent domain battles, rising construction costs, and disagreements over $55 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds.

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