Update: Crain’s Chicago Business reports the IRS is auditing Navy Pier Inc., the controversial nonprofit that controls Navy Pier. The audit will determine whether the group properly disclosed income that isn’t related to the tourist attraction’s primary purpose.
Officials at Illinois’ most popular tourist attraction are pushing the site’s largest renovation in decades. But are they taking taxpayers for a ride?
It’s nearly impossible to find out, thanks to efforts by Navy Pier Inc., or NPI, to prevent transparency at every turn.
Chicago City Council on Sept. 14 approved a massive makeover for the pier, including a seven-story hotel, an ice-skating rink, a 4,000 square foot welcome pavilion, an elevated walkway and a reflecting pool.
While NPI, a private nonprofit, manages the pier, taxpayers still have a major interest in how the pier goes about its business.
Navy Pier used to fall under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, or McPier, a taxpayer-funded government body that oversees McCormick Place. Following a number of high-profile corruption scandals (that haven’t let up), McPier turned over control of the lakeside attraction to NPI in 2011.
Taxpayers are still joined at the hip to the pier’s operations.
McPier gifted NPI a 25-year lease on the pier property for $1 a year. NPI also received a $5 million loan from McPier to fund initial operating costs, and is eligible to collect $60 million more over the course of the contract.
NPI also has the ability to issue taxpayer-backed debt, borrowing $46.5 million in 2015 for construction projects riddled with cost overruns.
NPI is happy to take public cash and other resources, but shirks its public duty to operate transparently. The Better Government Association has been locked in a legal battle with NPI since 2014, as the nonprofit refuses to release information on employee salaries, benefits and perks.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has refused to subject the pier’s payrolls to the state’s open records law.
Her father, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, was behind the transfer of Navy Pier management to a private organization, moving a 187-page bill through the Illinois House of Representatives in a single day.
NPI itself was formed in the final weeks of Richard M. Daley’s tenure as mayor of Chicago. Its board of directors is as clouted as they come, including Daley’s daughter, two of Daley’s former chiefs of staff and his former campaign manager. Its chief operating officer was formerly a Daley aide.
This board presided over $350,000 in bonuses for Navy Pier’s executive team in 2013, despite falling attendance and the attraction’s makeover falling behind schedule.
Before construction workers lay another finger on the iconic Chicago landmark, Chicago City Council and state officials must demand transparency from pier officials. Historical evidence shows a need for as much sunlight as possible in operations at the pier and other public-private entities in Chicago.
Otherwise, residents are left to ponder: What are they hiding?
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