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Will Daley Privatize McPier?

By Kevin Robinson in News on Feb 24, 2010 3:20PM

Photo by fatalysis.
In his on-going efforts to stop the bleeding at McCormick Place, Mayor Daley is floating the idea of privatization as a solution to overhauling the city's convention business. The convention center, part of the publicly-run Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which includes Navy Pier and is known as McPier, has been under pressure lately as it has lost conventions and trade shows to other parts of the country, thanks to the high costs of doing business in Chicago. "Bring the private sector in and you manage it and get out of the business of McCormick Place in the sense that it should be fully privatized," Daley told the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association's annual meeting. "Then you can run the costs down." Jodi Kawada, a spokeswoman for the mayor, quickly pointed out that the mayor was not talking about selling McCormick Place off as a city asset. "This is just an idea at this point," she told the Tribune. "The mayor is trying to think creatively about jump starting the convention and tourism industry in Chicago, which will require bold steps."

High wages and union work rules have been front and center in the debate over how to contain costs at McCormick Place, with both Mayor Daley and Governor Pat Quinn pushing to change the way the city deals with unions at the convention center. But union members that work there say that contractors that manage the shows have their hands in the pot as well, tacking high fees on top of high wages that exhibitors must pay to host shows there. And an investigation by Crain's found that McPier's problems are more complex than restrictive union rules and uncompetitive wages. McCormick Place is saddled with debt that it can't pay, clouted management that bloats the budget, and an inability to access credit, meaning that the agency can't restructure its debts and lower its payments without approval from the General Assembly. And that approval is tied up in political infighting downstate.

Meanwhile, Daley is talking about handing management of the convention center over to a private management company to cut costs and run the place more efficiently. That might bring down wages, among both labor and management, but it doesn't address the weight of the debt that's still holding McCormick Place back. And as Mick Dumke pointed out in the Reader, "if Mayor Daley hasn't selected the right people to run McPier, then what makes us think he'll pick the right people to work out a fair deal for McCormick Place?"