Saturday, March 08, 2008

Want convention business? Then keep Sam Zell off welfare

The idea that an asset worth a billion dollars owned by one of the wealthiest men in Illinois should get government money is so preposterous on its face that I'm a little sad that we have to argue whether or not we should put Sam Zell's Chicago Cubs on welfare.

The potential source of government money for Sam Zell and the Tribune Company is a 2% hotel tax currently assessed on every hotel room in the City of Chicago and collected by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

The Illinois Welfare For Millionaires Authority -- sorry, I mean the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority -- collects $34,000,000 annually from the hotel tax and picks up another $5 million each from the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago (really, it's $10 million from the State, but 5 of that was supposed to go to the City, so they count it as 5 from each).

You can read their Annual Report (a fine job, actually) to see their budget if you don't believe me.

So, we could decide that, like it or not, we turned the White Sox into the Welfare Sox back in 1987, and built public schools --- oops, I mean public ballpark -- with government money, and since we have to pay off those bonds, we should keep the tax going until the the ballpark is paid off and then .... eliminate the tax. Or use the money to build public schools. Or rebuild the CTA. Or the Dan Ryan. Or something that .... everyone benefits and not just the owners of the White Sox.

Or, we could do what former Governor Jim Thompson apparently wants to do and keep the hotel tax going forever, only this time we can use the money from the tax to make Sam Zell and the owners of theTribune Company richer by renovating Wrigley Field with public money so that they can sell it for more money next year.

Meanwhile, no money for schools, bridges, transit, rail, universities or other things that benefit everyone.

(I know I'm skipping over the $400 million in public money that we decided to spend on the McCaskey family of Lake Forest and the other owners of the Chicago Bears in 2001 -- but you get the idea).

So, who thinks it is a good idea to (a) keep our hotel taxes among the highest in the nation and (b) spend the money from that tax on making Illinois millionaires richer?

Besides former Governor Jim Thompson, I hope the answer is: no elected officials.

There is a consequence to keeping out hotel tax the highest in the country (almost 15%!). When it becomes more expensive to come to Chicago, conventions go elsewhere. We will not attract any more visitors or conventions by making Sam Zell richer. So why exactly are we running convention business out of Chicago to make Sam Zell and the Tribune richer?

This Crain's Chicago Business article explains how Orlando is starting to beat us at attracting conventions. Orlando's hotel tax is 11%. Ours is 15%. If we quit making putting millionaires who own sports teams on welfare, we could split the difference between our current tax and Orlando's current tax and get more competitive -- and maybe attract more conventions.


Reed said...

I mean, this is a no-brainer, right? It's not like Wrigley serves any greater community purpose. The neighborhood needs no improvements. The park is not used for anything but baseball and three concerts a year that could easily be held elsewhere.

So since we're all in agreement, what can we do about this? The students at NIU were able to stop Blagojevich's $40MM plan for Cole Hall. What can we do here?

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

I think the thing to do, like all things political, is to actually call your state legislators, the Governor and if you live in Chicago, the Mayor and your alderman and tell them you don't want to put Zell on welfare. They do listen and most people are too lazy to call.