Greising: Scrutiny of Navy Pier’s Operations Is Long Overdue

Taxpayers own Navy Pier, made a big investment in getting Navy Pier Inc. started—and have a compelling interest in knowing how it's being run.

A sign reading "It Will Get Better" is displayed on the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier in Chicago. (Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Navy Pier is one of Chicago's crown jewels. In a good year—the kind that came before the COVID-19 pandemic—visitors spend more than $350 million in and around the pier.

And Navy Pier Inc., the nonprofit entity that runs the pier, gets use of this precious public asset by paying $1 a year in rent.

Not only that. When Navy Pier Inc. was spun out of the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority a decade ago, MPEA, a city-state agency, provided $115 million in taxpayer money for improvements to the century-old pier. Plus at least $60 million in operating funds. Plus vehicles and other equipment worth $2.5 million. Plus a $5 million, interest-free loan. Plus another $220,000 in, well, petty cash let's call it.

In short, the body that runs Navy Pier may be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. But taxpayers own Navy Pier, made a big investment in getting Navy Pier Inc. started and have a compelling interest in knowing how it's being run.

That's the thinking behind a bill introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Southwest Side Chicago Democrat. "It's public property, and the public has a right to know how the people who run a public entity comport themselves," Cunningham told me.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas of the 36th Ward is calling for City Council hearings, too, Politico Illinois Playbook reported. He called attention to the $2.5 million Navy Pier Inc. received from the federal Payroll Protection Program.

The scrutiny is long overdue.

Until now, the effort to hold Navy Pier Inc. accountable has been the lonely work of my organization, the Better Government Association. In 2014, we filed public records requests for Navy Pier Inc. contracts, board minutes and other records. We got no cooperation, so we sued.

We've been at it ever since. Navy Pier Inc. and MPEA have fought to block the public's right to access at every step. The last time the BGA tallied the cost, three years ago, MPEA had spent $670,000 of taxpayer money on outside lawyers, just to keep Navy Pier Inc. records behind lock and key.

We have no idea how much Navy Pier Inc. is spending on lawyers. After all, they claim their records aren't subject to Freedom of Information Act requests—and keep losing the argument in court.

History tells us the public can't afford to divert our attention from Navy Pier. A low point came during Gov. George Ryan's administration, when the pier was at the center of a bid rigging and patronage hiring scandal. In 2017, the BGA and Crain's used records requests filed to MPEA to show how Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration took $55 million in tax-increment financing money earmarked for a McCormick Place hotel project and funneled it instead to Navy Pier.

Navy Pier Inc. officials say they've cleaned house and are running a solid operation.

Of course, it's impossible to verify any progress, since Navy Pier Inc. won't turn over its records.

Seven years since the BGA filed its case, the need for Navy Pier transparency is as great as ever. The pier has been shut since last September. It lost $5.5 million in 2018, the last reported results—and two years before the pandemic halted tourism.

Should Navy Pier Inc. ever fail, MPEA would need to pick up the pieces—another reason taxpayers need to know what's happening there now.

Cunningham said he is willing to make reasonable exceptions for a nonprofit—such as protecting the names of donors. But the demands for concessions just keep on coming, and Cunningham shouldn't bite.

Choose Chicago, the city's tourism agency, has told him Navy Pier will be at a disadvantage if details of bids and contracts are made public. But McCormick Place and the rest of the MPEA complex get no FOIA exemptions, and they're able to compete.

Cunningham introduced his bill, he told me, out of concern over Navy Pier Inc.'s costly court fight to deny the BGA's records requests. He should stand his ground—and stay on the public's side.