Are government subsidies in McCormick Place's future? Or perhaps a major purge of all the politically connected managers from the convention agency payroll? The editorial pages of Chicago are lining up with calls for change, in the wake of SPI's decision to move the 2012 and 2015 NPE trade shows to Orlando, Fla. Crain's Chicago Business weighs in today with "Identity crisis, financial missteps plague McPier." According to the column, the root of the problems at the agency that runs McCormick Place "is its double identity as a convention agency and a source of patronage jobs for the politicians who control it. ... [T]oo many jobs at all levels go to people whose political credentials are more apparent than their convention expertise. And too many McPier contracts go to companies that contribute cash to political bosses," the editorial states. "Only a thoroughly professional convention operation can compete for shows with destinations such as Orlando and Las Vegas. McPier should purge politics from its operations. This may sound like a tall order in Illinois, but it's the only way to save our convention industry." The same issue of Crain's Chicago includes a letter to the editor from John S. Gates Jr. and Juan A. Ochoa, the chairman and CEO, respectively, of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. They note that "everything is on the table" in their efforts to address Chicago's problems.
Despite generating an estimated $8 billion in annual economic activity and supporting 66,000 jobs, there is not a designated revenue stream from the city or the state into our operating budgets, while our competitors in Orlando and Las Vegas are both heavily subsidized and supported by their states and cities. We're working night and day to change our business model, and we'll continue to do so until it's fixed.So don't be surprised if some sort of government subsidy for McPier is soon on the agenda. The Chicago Tribune has editorialized twice on the topic (and both columns cite Plastics News as a source of information). First, "Chicago as Gouge City" on Nov. 18 blasted the convention authorities, saying their attitude toward exhibitors was "Because we can. You got a problem with that?" That column seemed to doubt the ability of convention center officials, who were promising change following the departure of NPE. The Trib followed up on Nov. 27 with "Big mess at McPier." One highlight:
McPier remains trapped by the lesson it never learned: Blind optimism, political influence and onerous labor costs for exhibitors don't combine to form a winning strategy. McPier has too much overhead, too much debt, too much fealty to its unions -- and some remarkable coincidences between who makes big political contributions and who wins contracts.It concludes:
How many more defections of trade shows, how many more raids on the state treasury, how many more clouted hires, how many more costly labor rules, until the politicians and board members responsible for McPier reassert the convention industry pre-eminence that used to be Chicago's?It's good to see this issue getting such high-profile attention. As I noted in our Nov. 23 editorial, Chicago's future as a trade show center has some pretty big problems, namely a reputation for poor service and high prices. It's now been a month and a half since Plastics News first reported that SPI was considering moving NPE to Orlando. It's been two-and-a-half months since we published Tim Hanrahan's column on the high price of exhibiting in Chicago. Chicago's media has embraced the story, and it now seems likely that some real changes are coming to McCormick Place.