New DePaul arena brings home-court advantage

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After years of searching for the perfect spot to set up shop, DePaul settled on McCormick Place for its men’s basketball program’s final destination. The Blue Demons, at the commencement of the 2016-2017 campaign, will play their home games in a 10,000-seat, $173-million multipurpose events center.

Part of “Elevate Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $1.1 billion tourism and trade show infrastructure redevelopment project – announced at a press conference at McCormick Place’s Skyline Ballroom May 16 – the new DePaul arena is the next step in the university’s plan to reassert itself as a basketball force.

“Our goal is to be a first-rate collegiate program and this gives us the ability to do that,” said DePaul President Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider.

DePaul will contribute $70 million to the proposed stadium – which will have a variety of other uses ranging from holding concerts to city college graduations – with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) adding its own $70 million and $33 million coming from public taxes. Some money has already been “earmarked” based off of the new Big East 12-year TV contract with Fox Sports. Prepared financial statements list ticket sales, fundraising and naming rights as key contributions.

What is expected to be a vibrant, urban entertainment center, the elements of “Elevate Chicago” are meant to jump start Chicago’s historic Motor Row district. The planned stadium will “provide the wherewithal and the facilities to have general session space, at the same that it also provides a lively neighborhood,” according to Jim Reilly, CEO of the MPEA.

“We couldn’t afford it ourselves just as DePaul couldn’t afford to build a basketball arena all by themselves,” said Reilly. “By working together in a really classic, private partnership, it comes closer to the truth that DePaul is actually subsidizing us than vice versa.”

The men’s team will continue to play at Allstate Arena – where the school has a contract until 2015 – and will extend its contract on a year-by-year basis until the new venue is ready. DePaul has played its home games at Allstate since the arena’s inception in 1980, moving from on-campus Alumni Hall for greater exposure and better facilities.

Negotiations of the arena deal will reportedly have DePaul spend $25,000 on rent for each of the men’s team’s 17 home games, and $15,000 per women’s game.

Holtschneider said the United Center gave a “gracious offer” of free rent for 10 years, but said operating costs would have made the deal less financially favorable than the school’s current contract with Allstate.

“The problem was that, because of their other tenants, they couldn’t offer us practice time,” said Holtschneider. “It was just a difficult place to build for a straight collegiate program under those constraints. If I paid for the whole project myself, I’d have to raise my students’ tuition too.

“By the time we bring together the resources from the Big East, ticket sales, a number of donors … we can put together this deal in a way that doesn’t increase the cost of education.”

“This building and what it can do for our program gives our basketball team a chance to be a positive P.R. tool for this great institution, and that’s exactly what we intend to do,” said men’s head coach Oliver Purnell.

In addition to the projected $841 million cost of construction and land acquisition for the events center, boutique hotel and entertainment/dining venues at McCormick Place, “Elevate Chicago” includes plans for redevelopment at Navy Pier. Planned renovations include the Children’s Museum and Maggie Daley Park.

“Because DePaul has come in as a tenant on a long-term contract … we do not have to face an either/or option,” said Emanuel. “Because of this creative financing, we do not have to pick between revitalizing and reenergizing McCormick Place or Navy Pier. We get to do both.”

“There are, and have been, throughout DePaul’s history, many opportunities where DePaul has rooted itself in a particular neighborhood to really enhance that neighborhood as well as providing a great educational opportunity,” said DePaul Athletics Director Jean Lenti-Ponsetto. “Wherever DePaul has put down roots, whether it’s in Lincoln Park or the South Loop … DePaul has always felt a civic pride toward wanting to be about the betterment of the city of Chicago.”

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DePaul reaction

At its core, DePaul’s new stadium will prove to be enticing to high school basketball recruits. Transferring DePaul basketball from the more remote area of the Village of Rosemont to Chicago’s South Loop immediately makes the school’s program a more visible and viable entity.

Purnell, who enters the fourth year of his seven-year contract in 2013-2014, is optimistic about the arena’s potential to positively affect recruitment.

“Perception, right off the bat, it helps you,” said Purnell. “I can tell you that already, in talking about the possibility of building a place, the real possibility and the likelihood – it’s helped us with recruiting and it’s helped us recruit Chicago-area players.”

Women’s head coach Doug Bruno, whose team has played on campus at McGrath-Phillips Arena (formerly the DePaul Athletic Center) since 2000, was particularly excited. “Every day is a great day to work at DePaul. Today’s a greater day to be a Blue Demon,” said Bruno on the day of the arena announcement.

The stadium will be eligible to host women’s NCAA Tournament games when it opens, but will not be able to accommodate games in the men’s tournaments due to size restrictions.

Addressing criticism that DePaul could have built its own stadium closer to campus, Ponsetto stated feasibility studies suggested otherwise. Given the property on campus, DePaul’s “footprint” was not large enough to be able to construct an amenable facility. In order to remain in line with the other spectacular facilities available to other student-athletes at competing programs, Ponsetto said an arena of this magnitude was a logical step in the right direction.

“This is a really important opportunity for us to be able to elevate the program and to enhance our recruiting,” said Ponsetto. “I think most of us would agree that the byproduct of that would be that we win. We think that winning is an important ingredient and an important component of the program and why we fund the program at the level that we do.”

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Transportation

Commuting to men’s basketball games in Rosemont has long been an issue for DePaul students and fans. The estimated 40 minute drive (with minimal traffic) by fan bus offered by the school is a drawback on any game day, especially to see a team that has struggled against conference competition for some time. Under Purnell, the Blue Demons have a 6-48 Big East record, 30-64 overall.

An arena in the South Loop gives fans a (relatively) easier destination to reach with moderate travel time (see sidebar) currently. But the transportation infrastructure to accommodate “Elevate Chicago” will still need to be altered for maximum efficiency.

“Clearly, if the arena is built there, improved transportation will be vital,” said Jon Hilkevitch, the Chicago Tribune’s transportation reporter. “The good news is there is already a $50 million Green Line stop planned in the redevelopment.” That site’s location is planned for just a couple blocks from the west entrance of McCormick Place.

Hilkevitch noted the proposed arena could learn from the United Center in its transportation infrastructure. The UC’s glaring lack of a nearby CTA station is “an oversight,” as driving remains the only option for many commuters, creating unfavorable traffic conditions on game days.

“I don’t think we want to repeat that same mistake if there’s an arena on the lake at McCormick Place,” said Hilkevitch.

Hilkevitch said improved bus rapid transit, dedicated bus-only lanes and special stations that allow for easy boarding are also important elements for faster, more reliable service. Financially, it could go for a “tenth of the cost of the rail line.”

“If we create a more efficient transit system where it makes sense to a family of four to hop on a Metra train, come downtown and take an express bus to McCormick Place and the arena, we would just have a much better system that would ensure people who made the trip would become regular customers,” said Hilkevitch.

DePaul will offer shuttles from both campuses and from the new Green Line stop on game days, providing additional transportation options for students who opt not to take public transit.

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Local reaction

Though Mayor Emanuel, the MPEA and DePaul all promote “Elevate Chicago” as an overwhelmingly positive project for the city of Chicago, the redevelopment has met its fair share of opposition.

One party against the arena’s construction at McCormick Place is 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti, whose district includes the convention center area at Motor Row. Fioretti questioned whether DePaul’s public/private arrangement with the city is as beneficial to Chicago as it is made to seem.

“Is this going to be the type of partnership we need to look at when we get funds to build an arena?” said Fioretti. “It’s questionable.”

Fioretti was doubtful the arena would ever break even financially, depending on recoup, land costs and the building’s naming rights. A self-proclaimed “strict steward” of taxpayer money, Fioretti did not think the project would broaden the tax base or bring in jobs necessary for economic growth in the city.

“Stadium deals and use of public funds have not been that great in the city of Chicago,” said Fioretti. “We are not even getting the Cubs any kind of tax breaks, and they generate $17 million in amusement tax alone. Is it even a good place to put a stadium? This is going to be a small amusement arena that will attract a lot of second-class action.”

Yet some taxpayers in the district seemed indifferent to the redevelopment, even welcoming the prospect of bigger business and more attractions to liven up the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood, since we’ve lived here – which has been about 10 years – has been longing for more amenities for the residents such as restaurants and shopping, among other things,” said Janie Urbanic, 64, a resident on Prairie Street. “So if the arena will help to bring that, then I’m all for it.”

Colleen Crotty, a 34-year-old public school teacher and mother of two children, was also accepting of the project. Despite stirred-up controversy that taxpayer money is better spent improving Chicago Public Schools, Crotty had no problem with her money funding “Elevate Chicago.”

“I’m happy for DePaul students and I think it’s a fine use of taxpayer money,” said Crotty. “It will certainly serve a lot of people.”

Though Urbanic endorsed introduction of the shopping and restaurants that will come in, she was hesitant to commit her money to an arena that might not bring in as much first-class entertainment.

“Other than just having a lot of tax money go to build something that’s not really utilized and doesn’t really benefit us, I think those are the only drawbacks,” said Urbanic.

Regardless of public opinion, DePaul’s men’s basketball team will be playing its home games in a new stadium starting in 2016-2017, a pivotal moment for the program.

Former Blue Demon and NBA player Bobby Simmons expressed his excitement following DePaul’s press conference May 16, saying the new arena is a great success.

“I’m very excited,” said Simmons, who owns streetwear boutique store Succezz, just a few blocks north of McCormick Place. “This is great for the fans. It’s something they’ve been waiting on for a long time and having the opportunity to see it happen in front of their eyes is just a blessing.”

Assistant sports editor David Webber contributed to this report.