For a week, Bradley Stephens recalled, he lived in Springfield, doing his best to twist arms and bend ears for a Statehouse bill to help Rosemont.
The Internet had taken a toll on the convention business, Stephens said, and it was made even worse by the recession. The bad economy had eaten into the rest of Rosemont’s revenue as well. Fewer visitors meant less tax money, and the village would end 2010 with three years of general-fund deficits totaling $26 million, according to state filings.
To help bridge the gap, the village could have stopped giving residents grants of up to $3,000 to ease their tax burden, or even sought to save money through competitive bidding.
But that week in Springfield, Stephens and his supporters latched onto a state subsidy bill. The proposal was originally intended to bail out the much bigger McCormick Place convention center in Chicago. Rosemont was able to add itself to the legislation. Stephens argued that his village also had a big convention center facing competition from other subsidized halls across the country, so it deserved a subsidy if Chicago was in line for one.
Among those supporting the deal were longtime beneficiaries of the Rosemont political machine. Over the last five years, funds tied to Bradley Stephens have given more than $200,000 to statewide politicians, most of them high-ranking Republicans.
The suburb stood to gain roughly $2 million a year in taxi taxes that could be used to renovate the suburb’s convention center and pay down its debt. Plus it was to get a $5 million annual state subsidy to offset the costs of incentives to lure convention business.
As lawmakers debated the legislation on the House and Senate floors, no one raised questions about how state money and taxi taxes would be used at a convention center long riddled with insider deals for the Stephenses.
Instead, lawmakers praised the small suburb — then passed the legislation.
“When people think of Chicago,” Dillard told colleagues, “it’s just not only McCormick Place, but people from all over the world rave about Rosemont and the great convention center, and it is a model, a model of convention centers throughout the United States.”
Research for this Medill Watchdog report was provided by interns:
Sara Arazoza, Alexandra Arkin, Rachelle Blidner, Karen Chen, Emily Chow, Matthew Connolly, Katherine Connor, Sarah Freishtat, Daniel Mescher, Fenit Nirappil, Lily Oberman, Katie Park, Elena Schneider, Bob Spoerl, James Walsh, Nancy Xu and Alan Yu