Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s crown jewels. In a good year – as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic – visitors spend more than $ 350 million in and around the pier.
And Navy Pier Inc., the nonprofit that operates the pier, is capitalizing on this valuable public good by paying $ 1 a year in rent.
Not only that. When Navy Pier Inc. was spun off from the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority a decade ago, MPEA, a city-state agency, donated $ 115 million in tax dollars to improve the centuries-old pier. Plus at least $ 60 million in operating capital. Plus $ 2.5 million in vehicles and other equipment. Plus a $ 5 million interest-free loan. Plus another $ 220,000 in, well, change we call it.
In short, the entity operating Navy Pier may be a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. But taxpayers own Navy Pier, have made a huge investment in starting Navy Pier Inc., and have a compelling interest in knowing how it operates.
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That’s the idea behind a bill that Senator Bill Cunningham, a Democrat from the Southwest Side of Chicago, brought to the Senate. “It is public property and the public has the right to know how the people who run a public facility conduct themselves,” Cunningham told me.
Ald. District 36 Gilbert Villegas is also calling for city council hearings, the Politico Illinois Playbook reported. He drew attention to the $ 2.5 million Navy Pier Inc. received from the Federal Payroll Protection Program.
The exam is long overdue.
Until now, the effort to hold Navy Pier Inc. accountable has been the lonely work of my organization, the Better Government Association. In 2014, we filed public record requests for contracts, logs, and other records from Navy Pier Inc. We didn’t get any cooperation, so we sued.
We’ve been with it ever since. Navy Pier Inc. and MPEA have fought to block the public’s right of access at every step. The last time the BGA billed the costs three years ago, the MPEA had spent $ 670,000 in taxpayers’ money on outside attorneys just to keep Navy Pier Inc.’s records under lock and key.
We have no idea how much Navy Pier Inc. spends on attorneys. After all, they claim that their records are not subject to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act – and keep losing the argument in court.
History tells us that the public cannot afford to take our attention away from Navy Pier. A low point came during Governor George Ryan’s administration when the pier was at the center of a bid rigging and patronage scandal. In 2017, the BGA and Crain used filings with MPEA to show how Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration took $ 55 million in tax increase funding for a hotel project in McCormick Place and instead passed it on to Navy Pier.
Navy Pier Inc. officials say they cleaned the house and are performing a solid operation.
Of course, it is impossible to check progress because Navy Pier Inc. does not share its records.
Seven years since the BGA filed its case, the need for transparency at Navy Pier remains great. The pier has been closed since last September. It lost $ 5.5 million in 2018, the latest reported results – and two years before the pandemic halted tourism.
Should Navy Pier Inc. ever fail, MPEA would have to collect the pieces – another reason taxpayers need to know what’s going on there now.
Cunningham said he was ready to make sensible exceptions for a nonprofit organization – protecting the names of donors, for example. But the demands for concessions keep getting on, and Cunningham shouldn’t bite.
Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism agency, has told him that Navy Pier will be penalized if details of deals and contracts are released. But McCormick Place and the rest of the MPEA complex are not receiving FOIA exemptions and can keep up.
Cunningham presented his bill, he told me, worried about the costly lawsuit by Navy Pier Inc. to refuse the BGA’s records. He should assert himself – and stay on the side of the public.