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Protesters Confront DePaul President Over Taxpayer Money For Proposed Arena

East view of plans for two new hotels and a 10,000-seat arena near McCormick Place. (Source: City of Chicago)

East view of plans for two new hotels and a 10,000-seat arena near McCormick Place. (Source: City of Chicago)

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CHICAGO (STMW) – Protesters opposed to using controversial tax-increment financing to help fund a new DePaul University basketball arena confronted Dennis Holtschneider, the university’s president, as he addressed a luncheon of business and civic leaders near downtown Chicago on Monday.

A pair of protesters at the luncheon at Maggiano’s restaurant in River North suddenly stood up as Holtschneider was taking questions and shouted that DePaul’s agreement to be involved still comes at the cost of basic city services, and asked him to respond directly.

“The city and the African-American and Latino communities are footing the bill,” one protester said.

When she tried to continue speaking, Paul Green, Roosevelt University professor and City Club chairman who presides at the luncheons, told her to ask the city and that she was out of order. The audience stood up to applaud and the protesters left.

Outside, a group of protesters held their ground, carrying signs stating “Money for Schools, Not Stadiums” and “Hey, DePaul — Return TIF money to our public schools,” and chanting loudly outside the windows, “Arena, no; schools, yes;” and “Father Dennis, We’re No Fools; TIF Money Should Go Back to Our Schools,” and “Whose money is it? Ours.”

Holtschneider, an ordained priest who acknowledged that the protesters wanted answers, said the city should address the controversy and that DePaul’s $70 million contribution will come from private fundraising and sales of game-day tickets.

“Students don’t pay $1,” he said in response to an audience member’s question. “Zero comes from the DePaul budget.”

“DePaul will use this facility 30 days a year,” Holtschneider said. “We’re going to put in one-third of its cost and pay full rent every day we use it.

“If anything, DePaul has been generous to Chicago,” he said.

“This is a three-way partnership to try to move forward the goals of the (McCormick Place) convention center that wants to bring more conventions to the city; the city, which wants to improve and strengthen the economy, and DePaul University, which would love to have an arena for our sports team,” Holtschneider told the Sun-Times before his speech at the luncheon.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed using controversial tax-increment financing to help fund construction of the arena near McCormick Place. TIFs siphon tens of millions of dollars away from local taxing districts, such as the school district, by freezing property taxes for 23 years and using the increment for business subsidies and infrastructure within those boundaries.

The board that runs McCormick Place in late September selected the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects to design the planned 10,000-seat arena intended to not only host DePaul basketball but also large-scale meetings.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, commonly called McPier, approved a $7.2 million contract for Connecticut-based Pelli, a firm that is internationally known for such work as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Pelli also has a working relationship with DePaul, having designed its theater school.

The planned $173 million facility, backed by an estimated $33 million in tax-increment financing and $70 million each from the convention authority and DePaul, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

In its first year, the arena is expected to book 60 events, including conventions and concerts, and increase that total in later years.

The arena would be on the block bounded by Cermak, 21st Street, Prairie and Indiana — opposite McCormick Place West.

Holtschneider, who spoke to the City Club of Chicago about the rising costs of tuition, noted the protest in his opening remarks, thanking both his audience and the protesters for their greeting.

“It is Chicago at its best,” he told the packed room.

Protester Jitu Brown, 47, an Austin neighborhood resident and a Local School Council member at Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st, said the city should spend more money to improve neighborhood schools rather than divert money to private schools such as DePaul University or to charter schools.

Brown criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel for proposing more money for 52 new charter schools for which the community didn’t ask, while disinvesting in neighborhood public schools.

The Emanuel administration declined comment.

Brown said Dyett High School students must take art and physical education classes online after they lost those programs, and no longer have a program aimed at helping students who score in the middle of class rankings to improve their study skills.

Brown is searching for a selective enrollment school for his 4-year-old son, Ajani, to attend, and wants his son to go to a public school.

Students and members of a coalition called the Grassroots Education Movement also were part of the demonstration.

Students of DePaul University sent a letter to the president, stating, “We feel that the DePaul mission of service to the community is in jeopardy.

“Our university has been the recipient of $100 million in public funding at the same time that many Chicagoans face tremendous economic hardship…. We call on you today to refuse to accept the $55 million in TIF funds and the $100 million in public funding and return this money to our city’s schools, parks and libraries,” the letter stated. “Robbing schools of much-needed funding violates the principles and values of DePaul.”

Another protester, Action Now leader Adeline Bracey, said, “How can the mayor take money from the poor and give it to the rich?

“He closed 49 school because of a so-called budget crisis, but now he has magically found hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium for a private university?” she said. “It is irresponsible and unethical for DePaul to take this money that belongs to the children of Chicago.”

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2013. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)