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Rahm Emanuel at yesterday’s press conference

Monday morning when Steven read the awesome news on the Sun-Times website (apparently the Mayor’s Office offered them the scoop on this) that the city has raised the last $9 million needed to start construction on the Bloomingdale Trail, his first reaction was annoyance. You can find more details about the exciting plans for the trail in most of the other local news outlets, so if you don’t mind today I’ll focus on this somewhat nitpicky issue.

Why was Steven irritated? Because of what he heard at last Thursday’s community meeting at Yates Elementary in Humboldt Park, where citizens were invited to provide input on the preliminary design ideas for the 2.7-mile trail and “linear park.”

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Rendering of what the Bloomingdale might look like

During the Q & A session, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin asked Chicago Department of Transportation project director Janet Attarian for details on the funding for the Bloomingdale. She explained that the city had secured $37 million in federal funding out of the $46 million needed for the final design and basic construction of the trail and access parks.

However, Attarian added that the city still needed to find the remaining cash for the 20% (of the total project cost) local match required by the federal grant, so the city enlisted the nonprofit Trust For Public Land to help with the remaining fundraising. The trust’s Chicago director Beth White elaborated on the plan to raise the money from private-sector donors:

White: We are committed to a private campaign to make sure the local match is coming from the private sector.

Kamin: So what will be the local match?

White: $9 million.

Kamin: How much of that have you raised?

White: We have not even announced the campaign yet but we’re committed to getting there that way.

So when Steven read yesterday, a mere four days after White announced the start of the fundraising campaign, that the city already had raised the $9 million, he felt hoodwinked. And while Exelon is donating $5 million and Boeing and CNA are each giving $1 million, the remaining $2 million is coming from the Chicago Park District, even though White seemed to promise that no taxpayer money would be spent on the local match. Steven wrote me in a huff, “This the first instance of fishiness to hit the remarkably smooth and open planning process for the Bloomingdale.”

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Citizens check out renderings of the trail at last week’s meeting

Lest you think Steven was looking a gift horse in the mouth, Blair Kamin also seemed to be scratching his head over the news. “[The news] contradicts what city officials and Beth White … stated at a public meeting last week,” Kamin wrote on his blog Monday morning. “They said that all of the remaining $9 million would be raised privately.”

I showed up for the press conference at Yates yesterday afternoon, where Rahm Emanuel declared that construction work on the trail would begin this year and be completed in 2014. In an equally exciting development, the mayor announced his plan to spend $290 million over the next five years on over 800 other parks and rec projects citywide to encourage Chicagoans to be more physically active.

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Rendering of 31st Street Harbor, slated to open this year

As part of this initiative the city will get 180 acres of new green space, 100 basketball court renovations, twelve new parks or major park redevelopments, twenty new playgrounds, eight new soccer fields, four new Chicago River boathouses and much more. The idea is to make sure that almost every Chicagoan will get a capital improvement within a 10-minute walk from his or her home. Very cool idea.

“This a unique moment in time for the city,” Emanuel said at the event. “Without a major project downtown I wanted to seize this opportunity to invest in our neighborhoods. Millennium Park clearly changed downtown and was a major investment and economic opportunity for our downtown. Without a single large project in the downtown area, I do not want this window of opportunity for our neighborhoods to pass, which is why we’re announcing an unprecedented investment in our neighborhood parks.”

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Turning to the Bloomingdale, he highlighted the trail’s function as a link between Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. “We have all read about what the High Line [another linear park on a former elevated rail line] has done for New York economically. I hope this has the same impact economically. Most important I hope it has the same impact in terms of a sense of recreation, for the families that live in these four communities.”

When the floor was opened to questions I asked the mayor about the unexpected funding. “At last Thursday’s community meeting, Beth White from the Trust for Public Land said the fundraising campaign for the $9 million in local matching fund had not even been announced,” I said. “She also said that the money would be coming from the private sector only. Now we hear that the $9 million is already been raised and $2 million is coming from Park District funds. So what changed in the last four days?”

“Well, first of all, I had raised this money,” Emanuel replied. “I had talked about with [Exelon] about a month ago, two months ago actually, and got the final board vote on it. And maybe not everyone was informed about what we were going to be doing for this announcement. We also had Boeing’s commitment, CNA’s commitment and the Park District’s commitment. The Trust for Public Land will be leading the effort for the other resources.”

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Rendering of the trail in winter

The mayor was apparently referring to the “Leadership Council” that the trust has established to raise an additional $35 million in private money for “construction and stewardship” of the trail. On top of the existing $46 million that will open the basic trail, this additional cash will pay for features like walkways, architectural flourishes and public art, as well as providing for long-term maintenance.

After the press conference, I buttonholed Beth White to discuss last week’s seemingly inaccurate statements. She’s a very nice person, so I tried not to be a jerk about it.

Greenfield: On Thursday you said that the private sector fundraising campaign hadn’t even been announced yet.

White: Not publicly, because you always go out there and raise money privately and then have some gifts to announce to build momentum for the rest of the campaign. And I guess on Thursday night we announced [the fundraising campaign] publicly because it was a public meeting.

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Beth White, left, on the Bloomingdale Line – image courtesy of TPL

Greenfield: But I assume by that point you were already aware that these corporate donations were lined up. Or was this something that you weren’t aware of?

White: Well, the exciting news as to what happened between Thursday and today is that we got news that we could announce these gifts. These gifts came in. And the Park District, which was always going to invest in this project, decided to do it now. And they’re leveraging $2 million in order to get [a total of $81 million in current and projected funding]. So what I said on Thursday was 100% accurate and we got great news in the subsequent days and today we’re here making an announcement that the project will move forward.

Greenfield: OK. Now, I certainly have no problem with the Park District spending $2 million towards the $9 million in matching funds. I think that’s a good use of money. But you said, “We are committed to a private fundraising campaign to make sure that the local match is coming from the private sector.”

White: Right, “we” meaning TPL, the Trust for Public Land. You’ll have to ask the Park District for their perspective. But we as a partner said we would help with the private fundraising.

Greenfield: I guess it makes sense if you’re saying you meant the Trust for Public Land was committed to private funding for the $9 million, but you weren’t saying that the city or the Park District was committing to not spending any public money.

White: No, absolutely not. I’m saying that the Trust for Public Land, that’s who I was representing, that we had said, “You know what, we’ll help you with [the local match], we’ll make that part of the private campaign.” I hope I explained that well.

I was fairly satisfied with Beth’s explanation. What do you think?

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  • Eric Rogers

    Her explanation is completely satisfying. It’s normal for a capital campaign to have raised half of its total goal before making any public announcement. And given how high-profile this project is, it’s not surprising that they exceeded that benchmark with the three corporate gifts before they even had a chance to announce.

    The question about the public contribution is a bit more complicated technically, but at the end of the day, did anyone really think this would be built completely without local tax money? That never seemed plausible to me, and I think it’s a good idea for the park district to support it, especially when it’s in a position like this to make a relatively small contribution at a strategic moment that really drags the project over a major hump.

    • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

      I never thought it would get built without some local tax money.

      • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

        I think that a slide in the slideshow at the presentation was another place where we were told that the $9 million would be from private funds.

  • Carl

    Eric is correct. Most capital campaigns have a “quiet” phase and a “public” phase. The general rule of thumb is that you don’t announce a public phase until you have raised at least half of that goal, though it is not uncommon to have raised as much as 80% when you take it public. There’s a big difference between sneaky and savvy. 

  • Erik Swedlund

    The eventual explanation makes perfect sense, but the original statements certainly sounded different. Thanks for the diligent reporting in straightening the story out!

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

       Sure thing. Thanks for reading!

  • http://www.commuterage.com/ Brian Morrissey

    I stopped reading at “open by 2014.”  Kidding, yes, I’m satisfied with her explanation and I have no problem with Chicago Park District spending $2 million for such an important park.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone that disagreed with the Park District’s small investment. I was concerned that there was a situation where one hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing. But thankfully that seems not to be the case. 

      • http://www.commuterage.com/ Brian Morrissey

        Indeed.  Even then I guess I could live with simple bureaucratic incompetence.

      • Alisa

        Back at the “Phase One” meeting at the Congress in September, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds were mentioned on a slide titled, “Funding” and under a sub-header of “Total to available or to secure.”  See link from pipeline dispatch (http://tinyurl.com/76eh92r) and scroll down to the fifth photo on the right side where $540,000 of TIF dollars is mentioned.   I too hope that the trail gets the funding it needs, and living less than one block from the trail, I am very excited about it like everyone else, though in such a crisis mode time when good teachers are being laid off or fired and police stations are closing, I just hope that there’s enough money to go around for everything. “Is it a want or a need? is a basic question children learn when it comes to budgeting. To me, the trail has always seemed more like a want than a need.

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          Regarding the money part of your comment, I guess a bunch of things changed since then. There’s been no mention of TIF since that meeting, and the City received a federal grant for the majority of the first phase of design and construction (which doesn’t include the “fancy” elements like landscaping). 

    • Jkt11

      I too am satisfied with Beth’s explanation.  Bloomingdale Trail will provide our communities much needed green space to enjoy our neighborhoods in an amazing way.  Break down of raising and using funding at this scale can be complicated. In my opinion at the end of the day it all comes from the same pot.

      • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

         Like I said, this was a somewhat nitpicky issue. On the other hand, there is a big difference between a corporate giant like Exelon giving back to the community and Chicago homeowners getting a property tax hike, so it’s worth keeping track of where the money comes from.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jstoner John Stoner

    With so many shots of Emmanuel, it’s easy to imagine the caption: ‘you wanna piece of me?’

  • Steve Timble

    Folks,

    I count myself among the trails longest and most ardent supporters and I am grateful this project is moving forward but I think John & Stephen are on to something here. But, this issue has little to do with TPL. This issue has everything to do with Exelon and Rahm Emmanuel’s new Chicago. Less than two months ago, Rahm was instrumental in helping Exelon push forward a huge increase in consumer rates. Exelon justified this increase as a way to finance their “Smart Grid”. Governor Pat Quinn, the Citizens Utility Board and numerous other organizations were against it. These opponents have labeled this effort “Smart Greed”.

    By increasing every customer’s bill by approx $3 monthly/$36 annually, Exelon is increasing annual rates by $225 million. Multiply this number by 10 years, 20 years, 50 years and understand the huge win this is for Exelon and big loss that it is for citizens.

    Mayor Emmanuel’s payment for his good work is the $5M that Exelon is donating to the trail and likely other pet projects.

    So the old saying rings true: There’s a little bad in everything good and a little good in everything bad.

    Steve Timble

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Interesting theory… Thanks Steve!

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