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Could airborne cable car boost Chicago tourism? – Chicago Tribune

Imagine sitting in a sleek, modern-day cable car zipping over the Chicago River to Navy Pier, perhaps even Millennium Park.

Well, a couple of local businessmen want to see the sky-high idea, which has been in the works a few years, finally becoming a reality. Calling it “The Skyline,” Laurence Geller and Lou Raizin shared their idea this week at a luncheon of the City Club of Chicago — whose members include business, civic and government leaders — saying it could become a tourism centerpiece. Both men sit on the board of directors for Choose Chicago, the city’s not-for-profit convention and tourism bureau.

“The Skyline is a prime example of how we can move Chicago from old guard to vanguard,” said Raizin, founder of Broadway in Chicago. “We kept coming back to the same question: What’s our unique feature? Where’s our Eiffel Tower? Where’s our Big Ben? These ideas are our attempt to answer this question and are intended to start a conversation in the city about what we would like our reputation to be in the future.”

In 2013, members of Choose Chicago and others revealed they were looking at number of ideas to lure more visitors, including glass-bubble cable cars running on a line over the Chicago River from Navy Pier to the south branch of the waterway, the Tribune reported at the time.

Since then, research and feasibility studies privately funded by both men, have found that The Skyline would be a success if it took flight. Geller said it could attract 1.4 million visitors a year to Chicago. He estimated it would cost $250 million to turn the idea into a reality. He thinks businesses or even individuals could finance the project without relying on state or city funding. But first, he wants to seek public input.

“If the will of the people is there, this project flies literally,” Raizin said, adding that he has secured some private funding.

The Skyline would be a public-private partnership because the land on which the amenity would be erected is city-owned. The rides could very well generate a new revenue stream for the cash-strapped city, Raizin said. “Tourism is, for me, the best way of quickly impacting the city’s revenues and improving the quality of life for our residents,” Geller said.

The year-round aerial gondola could accommodate 3,000 people an hour in the “pods” and operate on half-hour tours day and night along the south bank of the river, 17 stories above the water from Wacker Drive and Lake Street on the west and to Navy Pier on the east. There would be stops along the way, with Columbus Drive being the closest stop to Millennium Park, Raizin said. The cost to ride would be comparable to tickets for the observation decks at the Willis Tower and John Hancock Center, which are about $20.

“We need to think iconic. We need to be bold,” Raizin said.

What’s unique about Chicago is its waterfront, they said. The Skyline would be an attraction in the winter as well as the summer and alleviate the tourist frustration of conveniently getting to Navy Pier, the river and Michigan Avenue.

The duo had hired consultants including David Marks and Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects, who designed the London Eye, to weigh in on the aerial gondola idea and other proposed tourism projects. Additionally, the pair consulted with Davis Brody Bond, the architect for the September 11 Memorial Museum in New York; a cable lift manufacturer; and Walsh Construction, the company that built the Riverwalk and Maggie Daley Park, and the consensus was that The Skyline could be built, Geller said.

The City Club presentation also was focused on boosting tourism in Chicago and building the city’s reputation as a year-round international destination, according to a news release. Tourism officials last week announced that Chicago surpassed 50 million annual domestic visitors in 2015, an increase of nearly 5 percent over the prior year, putting the city closer to reaching Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of attracting 55 million visitors annually by 2020.

In a statement, the mayor’s office said Emanuel welcomes any ideas that create “iconic tourism igniters” to draw more people to the city.

“These investments, which don’t require taxpayer dollars, create good-paying jobs, pump money into our neighborhood economies, and increase educational and cultural opportunities for city youth. The Mayor welcomes a dialogue about any proposals that meet these goals,” the statement said.

Geller, chairman and CEO of Geller Capital Partners, said Chicago is an underrated city.

“We believe the way forward is by showingcasing Chicago as a city of neighborhoods and building projects that capture the mind and inspire the soul of both residents and visitors alike,” he said in the news release.

The slate of ideas, some floating in the past, include installing:

•Inventive lighting at notable locations such as the river, the pedway, parks that are part of Burnham’s emerald necklace, iconic skyscrapers and CTA stations. Lighting can extend the day for tourists, which in turn leads to more spending, and encourage them to visit during winter months.

• Spectator and performer barges on the river for opera performances and a light show behind the Lyric Opera House.

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•Enhanced train transportation options from O’Hare International Airport into the Loop, such as an express train that provides a VIP experience, something City Hall has been eyeballing for some time.

•An entertainment district in the Cermak corridor near McCormick Place, Chinatown and the Chicago River, which could lead to development along the riverfront. The plan includes a new park and walkway over the Stevenson Expressway to help extend tourism south.

Now Geller and Raizin are looking to build support and have the community weigh in and find out which projects resonate with them so they know how to prioritized their efforts.

The projects are realistic, according to Raizin.

“The projects from a financing standpoint is key. The financing is there for our projects,” he said. “What is ultimately key is the will of the people, and that’s the most important piece and the piece we need to be most sensitive to.”

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Twitter @lvivanco

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