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Wrigley rebuild deal getting close, but not done

Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

The city and the Chicago Cubs are getting close to a long-awaited deal to rebuild Wrigley Field, but other parties — notably Cook County and the state of Illinois — are not yet aboard.

That's the real bottom line in the wake of comments by Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a non-Cubs-related news conference earlier on Tuesday. The mayor said the parties are "in the final stages" of reaching a deal.

Insiders who would know say what's under discussion is similar to what has been considered for a while: a roughly $300 million to $500 million project to rebuild the aging ball field and perhaps to fund construction of a new multiuse structure immediately to Wrigley's west.

The Cubs ownership group headed by Tom Ricketts reportedly would pay more than half of the cost of the reconstruction, with the city chipping in some proceeds from its amusement tax, plus perhaps some other innovative financing.

Among other financing options that insiders say have been discussed: imposing some kind of extra game-day sales tax or hotel tax surcharge in the Wrigley Field area to funnel Cubs-generated revenue back to the field. That could be quite controversial among Lakeview-area politicians.

The amusement tax subsidy would work much like a tax-increment financing district. Proceeds beyond a certain specified level would go not into city coffers, but to pay off construction bonds — perhaps with a guarantee from the team that a minimum amount would be collected every year.

The county also might put in some proceeds from its amusement tax, and the state would contribute a historic preservation tax credit. But those talks are not nearly as far along, sources close to the team and City Hall confirmed.

The state's role likely would involve the Illinois Finance Authority. Sources said it could actually buy and lease back the field to the team, issuing tax-exempt bonds to finance the construction.

Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Ricketts have not talked directly in recent weeks. Instead, negotiations have been handled by city Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott — reportedly with some involvement of friends of the mayor from the investment banking world.

Those talks "are proceeding," the Sun-Times and Tribune reported today and sources confirm to me. But they're not completed yet, and Mr. Emanuel told reporters he won't have anything to announce until "I'm ready. All the pieces have to fit together."

Crain's and other outlets previously had reported that Mr. Emanuel, a longtime Cubs fan, has been talking with team owners and wanted to do a deal.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley also was interested in doing something but backed off when the recession hit, amid fears that it might look like a cash-strapped city was spending tax funds on wealthy business owners.

One source close to the matter said the recent talks had been jump-started both by Mr. Emanuel's heavy focus in his first year in office on economic development and by the fact that Wrigley actually generated less amusement tax for the city last year than it had in previous years.

That was a sign of a bad baseball season for the Cubs, but arguably also signals that the Wrigley Field cash post needs some plumping if it's to continue contributing big money to the city treasury.

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