Chicago Sun-Times

Gery Chico proposes entertainment district on western side of O’Hare Airport

Monday, February 11, 2019

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico on Friday rolled out an innovative idea to honor his promise not to put “another brick on the back” of Chicago taxpayers: a special taxing and entertainment district on the west side of O’Hare Airport.

Western access to O’Hare has been an elusive dream for decades, but actual progress has moved at a snail’s pace.

If elected mayor, Chico promised to make it happen, possibly underground, then impose a special sales tax on the hotels, bars, restaurants, convention centers and other development generated by that western access with revenues to be shared between Chicago and the communities of DuPage County.

He likened the idea to the special taxing district in the area surrounding McCormick Place and said it would generate “tens of millions of dollars” for both the city and the suburbs.

“If you just look to the east side of the airport at Rosemont and all of that development, you get a sense of what’s possible on the west side,” Chico told the Sun-Times.

“Nobody gets hurt. It doesn’t hit the taxpayers of this city one penny. But it raises tens of millions of dollars…Once you have this access, all of this [land] becomes more valuable. This is largely warehouse and business logistics.….Now, you’re gonna see restaurants, hotels, convention facilities….like you see in Rosemont….That whole Disneyland-type feel raises a ton of money.”

Chico described the idea as a “revenue-sharing” arrangement between Chicago and DuPage County.

He envisions the sales tax imposed within the boundaries of the entertainment district as somewhere between one and two percent. But the precise level and the revenue split would have to be negotiated.

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said he has discussed the taxing district with Chico and is gung-ho about it.

“It’s a fabulous idea –– a perfect example of how we, in the region, should be working together. There’s so much potential for jobs, economic development,” Cronin said.

“We’ve had previous discussions with previous administrations. We’ve all talked about the huge potential. But this is a concrete idea and this will work. Obviously, there’s a lot of details and discussions that need to take place. But I’m just thrilled. I enthusiastically embrace it.”

Mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy has proposed a land-based casino on the secure side of O’Hare — past TSA checkpoints.

Susana Mendoza has floated the idea of installing slot machines at O’Hare and Midway airports to generate a jackpot of new revenue for the city for non-pension purposes.

But Chico noted that federal law requires the city to use money generated at O’Hare Airport on improving and maintaining the airport.

His entertainment district idea is a way to get around those restrictions to generate a windfall of revenue that could be used to satisfy a looming, $1 billion spike in pension payments, he said.

“The city of Chicago cannot take any of the money off the airport…because of federal law…so you go outside,” he said.

Earlier this week, McCarthy proposed annexing suburban communities — including Norridge, Oak Park, Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park — to generate revenue needed to chip away at the looming spike in pension payments.

Chico scoffed at that idea, noting that, “Annexation requires two parties.”

Apparently pointing to the burgeoning City Hall corruption scandal and the ongoing pension crisis, he said, “There’s no way these communities are saying, ‘Hi. Bring me into the city of Chicago to solve your problems.’ [They’re more likely to say,] ‘Why should we help solve your financial problems?’”

Last fall, the Illinois Tollway board signed an agreement with Union Pacific Railroad to pave the way for a transfer for the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway on the airport’s western and southern edge.

But Cronin noted that a western entrance to O’Hare — where former Mayor Richard M. Daley once dreamed of building a terminal with a transit link to the O’Hare terminal core — remains an elusive dream.

“This has been going on for 30 years. Everybody acknowledges that this will bring thousands of new jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic development, property values that increase. And yet, nothing ever changes,” Cronin said.

“With this latest $8.5 billion [O’Hare expansion], we do have an agreement…that does have certain triggers in it. If there are a certain number of flights [and] ground transportation movements, it will trigger the opening of the western part of the airport….But who’s gonna measure the triggers and make it happen?”