Cheering News for the Cubs?

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

CHICAGO -- Mayor Richard M. Daley has had a tumultuous relationship with the Chicago Cubs, the city's third-largest tourist attraction.

Daley is a lifelong fan of the Cubs' rival Chicago White Sox, having grown up in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport that the Sox call home.

In 2004, Daley and the Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs and Wrigley Field, had a nasty public spat over the Chicago Tribune's coverage of the Cubs and over structural issues at the historic ballpark. In the midst of a spate of Tribune articles suggesting cronyism and corruption in the mayor's administration, Daley blasted the firm for alleged safety problems at the field, including chunks of concrete falling from the upper deck, and threatened to close the park. The Tribune followed up with stories on structural problems at City Hall.

Now, it appears that Daley and the team have made up, as discussions move forward about a deal in which Wrigley Field could be sold to a city-state government agency.

Last fall, local real estate magnate Sam Zell bought the Tribune Co. for $8.2 billion. Zell, a Daley supporter, wants to sell the Cubs before the 2008 season starts on March 31. Also last fall, Tribune approached the Illinois Sports Facility Authority (ISFA) about buying Wrigley Field.

The authority built and owns U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox play. It also furnished bonds to finance the architecturally innovative and controversial renovation of Soldier Field, home of the National Football League Chicago Bears, and funded construction of the United Center, where the Bulls play basketball and the Blackhawks play hockey.

Daley initially lashed out at the proposal, saying that the Cubs do not need public financing and that taxpayer money would be better spent on such projects as Chicago's failing public transit system. He promised to oppose any increase in the hotel or restaurant tax aimed at financing Wrigley Field.

Then on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Daley saying that he would keep an "open mind" to the idea, and other parties lauded his change of heart. Daley's office did not return calls for comment, and others were reluctant to speculate on his motives. His amicable relationship with Zell and assurances from ISFA and state officials that taxes would not be raised to finance the project may have won him over.

On Friday, the city approved the Cubs' plan to add 70 left field box seats and signs. Since Wrigley Field, which was built in 1914, has landmark status, the city must approve any structural changes.

If the sports authority buys Wrigley, proponents say, tax breaks and bonds would help carry out a much-needed renovation. ISFA ownership could also ensure the Cubs stay in Chicago for the long haul. Though details of any deal are still speculative, sports authority spokesman Doug Scofield said the agency would probably own the field and sign a contract with the new owner of the Cubs, which would require they stay in Chicago.

"Potentially, the benefits of public ownership are an ironclad guarantee of keeping Wrigley as the Cubs' home, which is good for the state and the city," Scofield said.

Crane Kenney, a senior vice president at Tribune Co., said a purchase by the authority would be made without taxpayer money; it would be financed through bonds repaid by rent from the Cubs' new owner, ballpark fees and property taxes. He called it the most desirable of options the company has on the table.

The arrangement would probably raise the Cubs' asking price significantly. That is because the buyer would not be stuck with the field renovation, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

James Thompson (R), the sports authority's chairman and a former governor of Illinois, is a fervent supporter of the proposal. He said he hopes Daley and other leaders will get behind it.

"I haven't talked directly to the mayor, but I take him at his word he has an open mind," Thompson said. "This could not be done without the complete cooperation of the governor's office, the mayor's office, four legislative leaders, the city council and the neighborhood. That's a lot of folks to get together."

Tom Tunney, the alderman representing the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood, has publicly opposed the plan. He said he does not see a need for taxpayer dollars to be spent on Wrigley Field when private investors are interested. Tunney said he is also concerned that government ownership of Wrigley might disrupt the neighborhood.

Kenney, for one, said he considers the mayor a friend of the team.

"The mayor's made it pretty clear which team he's a fan of -- but he understands the economic importance of the Cubs," he said.

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