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McCormick Place officials: We’re back in business

Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority CEO Larita Clark said 122 events slated to collectively draw 1.9 million attendees are on the books between July and the end of 2022. After the NBA Draft Combine in late June and Nike Tournament of Champions in mid-July mark the first in-person events at the convention center since March 2020, the Advertising Specialty Institute Show on July 13-15 will be the first traditional trade show to return to the campus.

The events will mark the end of an unprecedented stretch of pain for McCormick Place, which as of last month had lost more than 230 events to COVID-related cancellations. Fallout from those casualties washed over local hotels, which missed out on the estimated 2.2 million nightly stays those events would have generated, as well as state and local governments, which were left without the $234 million in tax revenue MPEA estimates those events would have generated .

“We are moving forward with complete confidence that McCormick Place will thrive,” Clark said. “Our loyal clients want to return to McCormick Place, and everyone at MPEA could not be any more excited to be back in business.”

Clark said MPEA, which laid off or furloughed more than 80 percent of its convention center workforce because of COVID, plans to restore 937 full-time equivalent jobs by July. Those numbers are projected to grow to more than 1,100 jobs in January and more than 1,700 by June 2022.

Under the city’s most recent guidance for the “bridge phase” of relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, conventions and meetings are limited to the lower of 60 percent of a venue’s capacity or 1,000 people, though fully vaccinated people do not count toward the capacity limit.

Clark also touted the new Arie Crown production studio, including “Hollywood-grade technology” that was added to the campus’ 4,000-seat theater to cater to event organizers’ virtual meetings in the future. That capability could be increasingly important after a year in which most events that were held were done virtually.

“We need to continue to be flexible. We have to be able to change, to be able to see what’s on the horizon,” said McCormick Place General Manager David Causton.

The positive news for the convention center comes as MPEA continues to press state legislators for financial help to recover from the pandemic and recruit and retain new customers. The agency in March requested at least $15 million in state money to shore up its operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and asked lawmakers to reinstate an annual $15 million incentive fund MPEA would use to help lure conventions and trade shows for the next five years.

Clark said during MPEA’s monthly board meeting yesterday that she and other MPEA executives attended a hearing in Springfield last week to field questions from legislators about the request.

“It was very telling for us,” Clark said yesterday, adding that she was “hopeful” that some or all of the request would be granted before the spring legislative session ends May 31.

“One thing that’s important that I learned is we really need to educate our legislators on the value of MPEA to the state and to be able to let them know that anything that we ask for (is) an investment for them. It’s an investment for the state and an investment for the city,” Clark said. “Many of them look at it as though we were asking for a handout.”

With tax revenue gutted on hotels, auto rentals and other services MPEA relies on to make its annual debt payments, the agency expects it will owe the state about $15 million that taxpayers will need to chip in to help it meet its current debt service obligation. The agency last leaned on the state to cover a shortfall coming out of the Great Recession.

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