In moving from a position of supplicant to someone who just wants to use his own property, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts definitely hit at least a solid double this weekend with his plan to “self finance a $300-million reconstruction of Wrigley Field.”
I've learned that the proposal has at least preliminary backing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and was produced after extensive negotiations between Cubs officials and top aides to the mayor.
That could be critical.
But the plan still faces one huge obstacle: owners of the rooftop clubs adjoining Wrigley and their staunch ally, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th). By all indications, both of them remain opposed to any deal that involves increased signage inside the ballpark that could block views from rooftops to the east and north. But without revenues from more signage, the numbers in the Ricketts deal won't add up.
Ergo, if Mr. Emanuel wants a big economic and public relations success that a rebuilt Wrigley and a nearby hotel would be, Mr. Emanuel may have to more than twist Mr. Tunney's arm. Whether he will — or whether some other plan can be concocted — will be this spring's real drama at the ol' ballpark.
Mr. Ricketts, of course, had originally pressed for more than $100 million in public assistance to rebuild Wrigley. But even though he argued he just was asking fora piece of all the new tax revenue his plan would create for City Hall, the plan was flatly rejected by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and never got very far under Mr. Emanuel — particularly after Mr. Ricketts father stepped up his political activity against President Barack Obama.
So, with his plan stalled, Mr. Ricketts has been developing alternate plans. In discussions with first Chicago Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott and more recently Intergovernmental Relations chief Matt Hynes, a new plan was developed and, with approval, floated at this weekend's Cubs convention.
The plan isn't exactly new — I hinted at it on Friday — but it turns the Ricketts public stance wholly around. Instead of asking for a subsidy, he wants a much more reasonable sounding freedom to generate more money from his own property to pay the cost of renovation.
Overall, according to sources both inside and outside the Cubs organization, Mr. Ricketts needs perhaps $45 million a year in new revenues to retire bonds needed for the work and to pay for increased operating expenses for the modernized stadium. Some would come from new skyboxes and other premium seats, and some from more night games and a couple more concerts a year — the latter worth about $1 million a pop each.
But the big money is more signage, perhaps a jumbotron, which insiders say could pull in $10 million to $20 million a year. Mr. Ricketts also wants to use Sheffield Avenue, at least on weekends, for an open-air market and gathering spot of sorts, similar to one outside the Red Sox facility in Boston.
If Mr. Ricketts can get all of that, he won't need the public subsidy, he said over the weekend. And Mr. Emanuel won't have to make a difficult choice between throwing a subsidy at a rich guy when economic times are tough and a big economic development that would likely help the city and play well with voters.
But more signage almost certainly means blocking some of those rooftop views. And the rooftop owners don't like that at all. Neither does Mr. Tunney, who though he hasn't been available by phone, is reported by several sources to be opposed to amending the landmark status of the stadium — a needed step to allow more signage.
Said rooftop owner Beth Murphy in a statement, "The rooftops are a fabric of the experience at Wrigley Field. Any relaxation of the landmark ordinance that blocks our views violates our current 20 year contract with the Cubs and would jeopardize the tremendous economic contribution rooftops make to Chicago as businesses, taxpayers and members of the community."
She adds, "Destroying one business to benefit the other shouldn't be the answer — we believe a better solution exists."
Mr. Murphy clearly has her view that the rooftops are good, productive citizens that have a right to exist. Look for her group to advance some sort of expanded revenue-sharing deal with the Cubs in the near future.
But the team also has its view, and it's that the team can do better selling its own space than letting someone else do it and take a big cut.
That leaves Mr. Emanuel with the choice: push through a deal over Mr. Tunney's opposition, or watch the prize die.
A source close to the team tells me it needs a decision by around opening day if it's to proceed with its plan this year. Mr. Emanuel's office isn't saying anything officially. A source close to him says only one thing is certain, that he won't back any public funding for the project.
Will we have a deal? It should be an interesting few weeks.