Batting 300 Million

 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But what does the child say about the village? What if the village happens to be a testosterone-fueled 300 million dollar megalopolis of athletics conceived by a boisterous alderman and located in one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods? What then? The real answer may come in a few years, when the Chicago Sports Village opens its doors (and its courts) on the city’s South Side.

Twentieth Ward Alderman Willie Cochran is spearheading the project. His ward is a gerrymandered oddity mostly covering Woodlawn, Washington Park, and Englewood, with a  segment snaking up to Back-of-the-Yards. Cochran hemorrhages enthusiasm about the Village and its destined effects on the area. He sees the project as a “game-changer for the South Side and Chicago…an opportunity to give pride back to the neighborhood.”

To develop the project, Cochran has teamed up with Paul McDermott of Creative Transformations Group, a Chicago-based development firm devoted to “extraordinary projects.” Although McDermott has extensive experience with Chicago-area sports development, CTG has only been on the scene since 2010. As of yet, none of its projects have come to fruition.

According to CTG’s plans, the base of the facility will be a large indoor track, complete with seating for 5,000 spectators. The rest of the features read like a juicehead Christmas list granted by Santa on steroids. The Village will have something of an international flair–three multipurpose fields serving football (presumably configured to American, Australian, and Canadian varieties), lacrosse, rugby, and soccer. Two baseball and softball diamonds will be supplemented by batting cages. Basketball and volleyball courts will be there too. Those who love to fence, be martially artistic, and play ping pong will also be provided with relevant facilities.

Water-wise, the Village will contain enough gallons to be considered coastline. The aquatic sports center comes with a 50 meter competition pool and two practice pools, as well as a rowing training center featuring training tanks for virtual crew meets. Elsewhere, a 15,000 square foot golf training center will come replete with a 20 bay driving range, simulators, a rooftop mini course, and a members-only club to preserve the elitism that comes naturally with golf.

And how complete could any athletic body be without MASSIVE blood flow to the EXTREMITIES? The plan calls for a 200,000 square foot indoor BMX and skateboarding center fit to host ESPN’s X-games, as well as a hockey and skating center with a competition rink and two practice rinks for those whose skills are either underdeveloped or frosty.

Because the above apparently does not whet Cochran’s insatiable appetite for sports, McDermott plans on festooning the complex with a year-round outdoor ski and snowboarding slope, allowing users to slalom down former slums for a nominal fee. Such a fee will probably be necessary–McDermott estimates that construction alone will cost 50 million dollars.

Hormones aside, Cochran stressed that the project remains in the conceptual stage. But McDermott sounded surer, saying that investors have already been lined up, and that a plot of land has been chosen. When asked about the parallel to Chicago’s failed Olympic bid, Cochran stated that the project does come in the wake of the bid, and aims to make use of the same qualities that made the area attractive to the Olympic developers: “The project is connected in that Washington Park is just as attractive with its transportation, community benefits, and access.”

So will the facility be in Washington Park itself, like the Olympic bid? Cochran answers with a resounding “no,” limiting the area to the Washington Park and Englewood neighborhoods. McDermott reckons the size at 80 acres, covering roughly eight city blocks of space. Oddly enough, neither neighborhood has 80 acres of open space to use, meaning that at least some occupied residences will have to be demolished to make way for the Village. Cochran said that most of the land parcels will be taken from empty lots and abandoned homes, turning symbols of urban decay into a springboard for community rehabilitation.

The humble and unathletic observer might also hazard the question of how all this will be paid for. Mr. McDermott, who speaks like the audiobook version of Mitt Romney’s resume, downplayed the amount of public funding involved, calling it “minor,” saying that the project relies almost exclusively on private investment. However, McDermott and Cochran appear slightly at odds on this point. Alderman Cochran, the self-styled “originator” of the project, stated that it would draw on “whatever funding necessary,” including public funding. He did stress that the public aspect would be in the minority, and would consist primarily of Tax Increment Funding (TIF).

 

When a private company plans a development project in a blighted area, the city can cleave a TIF district for them out of the legislative void. Development within the district receives subsidies from the government, but only in the form of the projected rise in property taxes due to the fiscal effects of the development. In this way, a public-private partnership can go into action with funding from the government’s predicted property revenue due to the development.

TIFs come under near perpetual criticism, however, for allowing overuse of eminent domain laws and for distributing money to developers while ignoring the increased strain placed on public infrastructure. For example, increased property values may lead to higher population density, which would require bigger schools and more police stations to be built on the same budget as before. The 2016 Olympic bid relied largely on TIFs, and came under heavy fiscal flak for that reason.

Although the Village will probably take the majority of its funding from private investors (all of whom request anonymity), the specter of public funding for this kind of project still looms. Tom Tresser, one of the leaders in the campaign against Chicago’s Olympic bid, cautioned: “Be VERY wary of so-called public-private partnerships that involve public land and precious public funds. When I hear that term I usually see some developer’s scheme that can’t be done in the regular marketplace and is a cover for sucking at the public tit.”

 

To milk the problem further, such a development would also cause property values to spike, which is, in fact, what TIFs rely on. Gentrification in other areas has been met with opposition, and some would certainly protest that the rich cultural history of Englewood and Washington Park may be erased by an influx of new residents who could push the old out. On top of all this, the facility will be for-profit. And of course, with a 300 million dollar price tag, one can wonder if there are more pressing monetary concerns in a ward with mostly failing and overcrowded public schools.

 

In spite of such concerns, Cochran and McDermott envision the Village and the area as a land of athletic milk and honey. Alderman Cochran pointed out that the space is intended for the public, and as a result will make use of public funding. To that end, elements of the facility will be free. According to McDermott, the facility will be run by an overarching non-profit group, meaning that the profits reaped will be sown back into the pockets of investors, with the residual gleanings of cash going to maintaining the facility. McDermott described the Village as “Disneyland with free entry,” with only larger events and snazzier facilities like the ski slope costing visitors.

Cochran is especially keen on improving Chicago Public Schools’ athletic facilities and intends for the facility to address this. “We have schools making kids run in the hallways [for gym]…and no indoor track facility.” Beyond this, the Village will offer education programs for local kids and a number of sponsored scholarships for students, as well as training facilities for umpires and coaches, and a sports academy made especially for girls ages four to fourteen. As Cochran said of his passion and promotion for the project, “I have athletics in my DNA … the project comes from my past and my love of athletics.”

In order to build such a towering sports complex, presumably grown from the alderman’s own genetic material, the project will need 1000 jobs for construction in order to meet its target completion date in late 2014, as well as 800 staff members to run. Although it is unclear how many staff positions will require highly specialized labor, both Cochran and McDermott are excited about the economic benefits of the project.

Legitimate concerns do remain about the project, especially given the optics of having a facility of such extravagance situated in one of the city’s poorest areas. The question of funding also lingers, as well as the perpetual debate over what constitutes development and what constitutes gentrification. However, as Yogi Berra said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” The Chicago Sports Village seems extravagant to the max, and will most likely become something of a behemoth on the South Side, assuming that currently tentative plans score their way into reality. Will the South Side’s sports Village hit a home run, or go down swinging?