If the building's location was a challenge to the public, corruption inside was even more problematic for its customers. Exhibitors and attendees complained that they were being bilked and harassed at every turn by unions that insisted on doing everything from screwing in light bulbs to carrying small boxes at exorbitant rates.
After the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice found links between unions and organized crime in the early 1970s, six union workers with alleged mob connections were barred from McCormick Place.
But the problems persisted, and became a focus of intense media coverage. The publicity prompted the Metropolitan Fair and Exposition Authority to investigate allegations of property theft and price-gouging at the convention center.
To do the job, the authority hired Samuel K. Skinner a former U.S. attorney who would become President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff and who is now chief executive officer of Chicago-based trucking company USF Corp. He practiced law at Chicago's Sidley & Austin at the time.
Skinner's 1978 report was damning. It detailed pervasive theft at McCormick Place, shakedowns by union workers and inadequate security and management oversight. A survey of exhibitors found some who felt their lives were threatened by workers, and others who continually were paying bribes to get their materials set up and broken down with any degree of promptness.
"Simply put", said one exhibitor in the report, "when exhibiting at McCormick Place, we are conditioned to approach Lake Shore Drive with money in hand."
Many never wanted to set foot in the convention center again, having been intimidated and forced to pay as much as 40 percent more for the same set-up work they received in other cities.
"The charge to get the display in and out of that building costs more in some cases than the freight did to move it from Minneapolis to Chicago," said another exhibitor.
Skinner also sent in an undercover agent who posed as an exhibitor. The agent described having to pay high rates to workers who dragged out the work beyond what was warranted. "I cannot stress enough the frustration I witnessed, myself and that of others, because the exhibitor is totally at the mercy of these people, the agent wrote.
Despite Skinner's warnings that the labor problems threatened to ruin a vital component of Chicago's economy, little changed at McCormick Place until the early 1990s, when major trade shows threatened to leave the city for more hospitable convention centers.
New work rules, grudgingly accepted by unions for carpenters, electricians, drapers, riggers and teamsters in 1991, enabled exhibitors to handle simple tasks, such as screwing in light bulbs or setting up pop-up displays.
But more-substantive change didn't occur until one of McCormick Place's perennially biggest show sponsors, the Radiological Society of North America, voted in 1997 to alternate its meetings between Chicago and Orlando, in part because of high labor costs. Soon after, another blockbuster, the National Housewares Expo, threatened to leave. At that point, Mayor Daley stepped in, saying that high labor and hotel costs were undercutting the city's convention business.
A September 1998 agreement between McCormick Place, the unions and the hotels pushed by Mayor Daley allowed small exhibitors to set up their own booths and plug in standard electrical equipment without calling an electrician. Overtime rates were reduced, catering rates from McPier were cut and the authority agreed to pick up some of the cost of shuttle service between the convention center and downtown. Hotels also agreed to reduce their rates for conventioneers. (The amended work rules later were extended until 2005.)
Two months after that deal was inked, RSNA, which had held its annual meeting at McCormick Place since 1975, canceled its plans to move to Orlando.
Cristy Grinder, who has been coming to the RSNA show since 1997 to set up a 3,000-square-foot booth for her employer, Cleveland-based Codonics Inc., is glad the association ultimately decided to keep the show in one place.
"To have a show that massive jump around would be difficult," Grinder said.
As it is, she has to coordinate with five or six groups to get more than 100 of the company's medical printers morved into place smoothly.
At first, it was a terrifying experience, she said.
"As an exhibitor, the unions were intimidating. I was scared of them."
Even as late as 1997, anyone who stepped out of line or made demands was forced to wait for service.
But now, Grinder said she is impressed with the staffers at McCormick Place. they anticipate exhibitors' equipment needs and often make suggestions that save time.
"They make it faster and easier. The relationship is invaluable," she said.
Whether Chicago's labor troubles are totally in the past remains to be seen, particularly as the convention center goes head to head with its competitors in right-to-work states such as Florida and Nevada for the few remaining blockbuster shows.
Since hitting a high-water mark in 1993, when the city hosted 30 of the top 200 trade shows, according to Tradeshow Week, Chicago steadily has ceded market share to Las Vegas and Orlando.
The two cities gained ground by expanding their meeting centers quickly and tapping into taxes from the large base of hotel rooms that surround Walt Disney World and the Las Vegas casinos.
By contrast, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (McPier, the renamed agency that has run both Navy Pier and McCormick Place since 1989) has had to compete for a share of tourism taxes to finance expansion.
With recent or planned expansion that will take their convention facilities over the 2 million-square-foot mark, Orlando and Las Vegas "have turned into very serious competition", said industry expert Heywood Sanders, who is chairman of the department of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Convention industry statistics bear that out.
According to Tradeshow Week's most recent tally of trade show activity, Chicago in 2000 hosted 22 shows, Las Vegas hosted 40 and Orlando, 15. A comparison of labor rates compiled by the publication shows that hourly rates for general labor in Chicago exceeded those in Orlando and Las Vegas by $11.70-$22.33 an hour.
McCormick Place's Mobley argues that the cities still are on par: Because Chicago's workers are more skilled, they get jobs done in less time.
"Chicago's convention work force is the finest in the world," he said. "No one will contest that. That has real value."
The weather - another factor that makes competition with Sun Belt cities a challenge - can't be changed.
But McCormick Place is striving to make its indoor environment more comfortable.
"The quality of the buildings has changed, as they have throughout the country," Mobley said. "They were boxes with docks," he said. Newer buildings are designed to feel more like a hotel with restaurants and business centers and quiet areas throughout.
Design work on the western addition is under way; at press time, its dimensions still were in flux. Plans for meeting and exhibit space had been reduced by 100,000 square feet as of May, and the addition's projected cost had risen to $850 million a jump of $50 million from the original figure.
McPier officials expect to break ground later this year and open the building in 2007. The new facility is designed with smaller meeting rooms to appeal to the conventions of the future the small and midsize meetings that emphasize educational sessions over product displays.
Then, the city will see whether the convention center's gamble pays off if it is able to remain competitive with its lower-cost rivals in sunnier states.
At the very least, the annex will enable McCormick Place to pick up business during peak seasons between Labor Day and the winter holidays and between February and June, when the setup and removal of large shows monopolize the building, crowding out other business.
Even with the industry in the doldrums, conventions, Mobley said, are still the most cost-effective way to close a sale.
This story was part of the 25th anniversary issue of Crain's Chicago Business, published June 2.