Updated 9:20 a.m.
The leaders of McCormick Place in Chicago are publicly pitching a major new expansion to Illinois state lawmakers. In its sprawling campus south of downtown, McCormick Place stages major conventions like the Chicago Auto Show and the upcoming comic convention, C2E2.
In a low-key appearance before legislators in Springfield on Wednesday, Lori Healey, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority which oversees McCormick Place, said the expansion includes plans to build a new 300,000-square-foot structure over Martin Luther King Drive. She said it would connect the current South and West buildings. Healey bragged the plans would create the “largest contiguous exhibition space in the world.”
Healey is asking legislators in Springfield for permission to increase the MPEA’s bonding authority by $600 million, from $2.85 billion to $3.45 billion.
Pushback arose, however, in just how MPEA intends to pay for the construction project.
Under the proposal, consumers of Lyft, Uber and other rideshare companies would be charged an additional $1 fee when they ride to or from O’Hare and Midway airports, or McCormick Place. A Lyft spokesperson said those customers already pay $5.72 per ride, though the fees collected do not specifically go toward McCormick Place. The $1 fee would go to McCormick Place, in addition to Choose Chicago and the Village of Rosemont.
“This is strictly to back our bonds, for which the state ultimately is the ultimate backstop,” Healey said in defense of the proposal. “MPEA and the rideshare companies, we have a very mutually beneficial relationship. We feed their business.”
“These rides are already subject to high fees, and what’s being proposed is a 20 percent increase,” Lyft spokesperson Campbell Matthews wrote in a statement. “Our focus is always on ensuring riders can access affordable an (sic) reliable transportation and providing earning opportunities for drivers.”
The city of Chicago filed paperwork to oppose the bill as it’s currently framed. A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “We’re working with MPEA to find a solution, but we don’t think this bill is the right course of action.”
Regardless, legislators on the House Executive Committee unanimously voted to advance the proposal Wednesday, even while the rideshare industry and MPEA agreed they would continue to negotiate over the plans.
“I definitely think you guys need to get in a room and get this resolved as quickly as possible,” state Rep. Chris Welch, D-Hillside, said.
Healey said the new space would be high-tech and flexible, which would be better for allowing multiple conventions to take place on the McCormick Place campus. She argued these plans are necessary for McCormick Place to stay competitive with other markets like New York and Las Vegas, which she said recently announced a deal with Elon Musk’s The Boring Company for a proposed underground rail project.
“Even if The Boring Company is never able to get it done, it’s the perception that you’re making these innovative, technology-forward investments in your facility, and that’s what our customers today really want,” Healey testified.
But MPEA spokeswoman Cynthia McCafferty said the expansion plans are “in the really early stages.” She said it’s also unclear what will happen to the Lakeside Center, which sits right on Lake Michigan. The center was rebuilt in 1971 after a fire destroyed the original structure in 1967.
“The building is older, and what people are looking at for meetings and conventions now is different than what exists over there,” McCafferty said of the Lakeside Center.
McCafferty wouldn’t say why such a massive expansion and new fee on rideshare companies would be proposed in Springfield as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel prepares to leave office in May.
“I could never speak for the mayor,” she said. “This is driven by what’s needed to stay competitive in the industry and we’re in the very early stages. As far as timing, it’s one step at a time.”