The allocation of $55 million of Chicago’s tax increment financing (TIF) dollars for the building of a new DePaul University basketball arena at McCormick Place is “unjust,” according to a group of approximately 20 protesters who took their message to the university’s student center Wednesday.
“A private university can fund their own stadium,” said Adenia Linker, 45, a member of the education advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, and participant in Wednesday’s protest. “I understand the need for tourism dollars and the need to bring people to the lake, but we also need the infrastructure of education for the next generation.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal for the private university's nearly $200 million arena was announced in late last month, just days before the Chicago Board of Education voted in favor of closing a record-breaking number of schools across the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district.
CPS’ administration cites a “utilization crisis” and $1 billion deficit as the reasoning behind the plan to close 50 neighborhood schools across Chicago.
Meanwhile, according to the Chicago Tribune, the proposed 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul’s Blue Demons will use $55 million of TIF funds, a form of public financing by which a portion of property taxes are used as a subsidy for community development projects. DePaul University is contributing $70 million to the project and another $70 million is being directed to the effort by the McCormick Place Exposition Authority’s bond fund.
“They’re putting public funds into a private corporate entity,” said Linker, condemning the fact that DePaul turned down a 10-year, rent-free offer to house the basketball team at the United Center late last year.
Instituted in Illinois more than 30 years ago, projects that use TIF funds are required to possess numerous “blighting factors,” including dilapidation, inadequate utilities and a lack of physical maintenance. Projects that are funded by TIF money must be approved by the Chicago City Council.
“I’m paying out of my bottom for my education at DePaul, the extremely high tuition is worth every penny, but they certainly don’t need taxpayer dollars,” said Erika Wozniak, 30, the organizer of Wednesday’s protest, which was timed to coincide with a faculty meeting.
Wozniak graduated from DePaul in 2004 and has since become a teacher in the Chicago public school district. Although her North Side school has been spared from closure, turnaround or consolidation, she called the school actions “awful.”
“I’m just so sad,” she said.
Here’s more from Wozniak:
Participants in the protest promoted and tried to get passersby to sign on to a petition, started on Friday by Wozniak, that calls on Emanuel to use TIF funds to invest in closing schools, instead of funding a private university’s basketball arena.
Wozniak added the protest was staged in solidarity with a collection of more than 20 professors who, for their own reasons, wrote a letter to the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, opposing the proposed basketball arena.
“You must surely recognize that there is a remarkable disconnect between DePaul’s committing $70 million for a stadium (which will be dark the vast majority of evenings every year) even as university staff and faculty have had annual salary increments capped and postponed for six months,” the letter reads.
Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), said the project “is a real outrage.”
“This is another example of a long history of the city giving money to corporate developers at the expense of public services, such as schools and libraries,” he said. “While the mayor and his appointed school board claim this huge deficit and close schools right and left, displace students and put them in harm's way, and jeopardize academic development, at the same time they give all this money to all these people who don’t need or deserve it.”
Potter said the TIF funds could instead go toward neighborhood infrastructure that would help Chicago’s youth thrive.
“We’re seeing a real disaster on the horizon,” he said. “From these school closings, we’re going to see an increase in class sizes, an increase in neighborhood violence, we’re going to see learning jeopardized from increased mobility. All of that could have been avoided.”
A representative from the mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.
In a statement, Emanuel said the proposed development of DePaul’s basketball arena is part of a larger agenda to establish an entertainment district at McCormick Place.
“Establishing the McCormick Place entertainment district along with the redevelopment of Navy Pier is a vital step in tapping the full potential of the City of Chicago,” Emanuel said in a press release last month. “These projects represent a major economic engine for Chicago, injecting millions of dollars into our local economy and creating thousands of construction and fulltime jobs. From the moment I took office I have focused on attracting people to Chicago and showing off this wonderful city, and these two projects will leave a lasting impact on the city for generations.”
Dubbed "Elevate Chicago," Emanuel said the overall project, which includes development of a 1,200-room hotel at McCormick Place and the revitalization of Navy Pier, will create 10,000 construction jobs and 3,700 permanent jobs.
Meanwhile, Wozniak’s petition has received more than 880 signatures.
“This stadium doesn’t seem to be required or necessary,” said Neal Miller, 31, a participant in Wednesday’s protest and signee on the petition.
Miller said he was “horrified” by the planned school closures, and said taxpayer funds are better allocated to public entities than a private university.
“I don’t buy CPS’ arguments for closing the schools,” he said. “To add this decision to take TIF funds and invest in a stadium seems to be a bad idea.”