Trade shows: Drop fees or we'll leave Chicago

April 1, 2010 3:29:18 PM PDT
Operators of some of the largest trade shows told city officials Thursday they have to cut costs at McCormick Place to keep the convention crowds in Chicago.

The organizers spoke at a special hearing on operations at McCormick Place. Officials want to stop the exodus of trade shows, which can generate massive revenue for the city. Some trade shows have already relocated and others are threatening to leave because they say costs and fees at McCormick Place are not competitive with other cities.

The National Restaurant Association president said the trade show, which has been a fixture in Chicago for 60 years, is considering moving the event out of town. That event brings in 70,000 people.

"For many, many years it was the only facility large enough to house us. That is no longer the case. We can fit very nicely in Orlando. We can fit very nicely in Las Vegas," said Mary Pat Heftman, National Restaurant Association.

Heftman was joined by representatives of five other shows who echoed her concern about McCormick Place prices and work rules for union labor.

"We've gone from complaints about labor costs to anger and demands for change," said Chris Price, Graphic Arts Show.

Then the city's convention and tourism chief dropped another bombshell: every current and potential McCormick Place customer is considering ending business at the lakeside convention center. He said at least five and as many as 20 shows will pull out by July 1 if changes are not made.

At least one labor leader in the audience appeared ready to make concessions.

"There are concerns exhibited and I'm glad to hear from them. I'm sure we can address some of their concerns," said Anthony DeGrado, Decorator's Union.

But another labor leader says any gouging at McCormick Place is not by his members, who make an average of $29,000 a year.

"The gouging that goes on down there by whoever it may be is not that poor worker on the floor," said Robert Fulton, Riggers Union.

The lawmakers--who will hear from the unions next week--appeared to sympathize with the exhibitors. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said she would consider a larger subsidy for McCormick Place if it led to price cuts to attract more shows that create economic activity and jobs.

"If we can invest in an industry that employs a large number of people that's probably something we need to be looking at," said Sen. Christine Radogno.

And Senate President John Cullerton promised action before the July first deadline.

"We will finish our session by May 8th. We will pass legislation by May 8th," said Sen. John Cullerton, (D) IL Senate President.

Next week, the same joint panel of the general assembly will hear from organized labor. There were dozens of union members held in the lobby of the Thompson Center because there was not enough space in the hearing room.