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Letter to the Editor: Challenges facing MPEA may defy conventional solutions

By Steven Hacker, CAE
President, International Association of Exhibitions and Events
Special to Exhibit City News

When it was recently announced that the governing authority of McCormick Place in Chicago (MPEA), joined by the mayor and the governor, would turn to the Illinois Legislature to help solve some complex and very serious financial and operational issues, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) urged caution pointing out the often-unintended and all-too-common consequences of legislative involvement in the affairs of business. Legislation, we said, should always be the last remedy.

While that’s still sound advice, it may be that a real solution to what ails McCormick Place may only be possible with the assistance of public policy officials in Springfield. Nevertheless, customers of McCormick Place, exhibition and event organizers, exhibitors and service contractors, are rightfully concerned about a state “takeover” of the facility’s labor pool. The fact is two earlier state takeovers elsewhere of exhibition facilities did not do anything to lower customers’ costs. Over time and as the original architects of those plans moved on or retired, costs have continued to climb despite the original intentions.

In fairness to McCormick Place, however, the only way to substantially reduce costs in the end may be a threefold approach that involves the restructuring of the facilities long-term debt ‑ something that can only be achieved with the sanction of state lawmakers – and addressing the matter of labor rates and work rules. The plan is to convert labor to the status of state employees thus depriving the unions of the inherent threat of strike while opening the door to recalibrating the current work rules that drive customers’ costs sky-high.

And third, out-sourcing electrical which will almost immediately bring down those costs, which have served as the lightning rod for some many unhappy customers. Nothing like free competition among providers controls costs better and no where is it needed more than electrical costs.

Is this a perfect solution? Not by any means. But the fact remains the extraordinary challenges now facing the nation’s largest exhibition facility may defy conventional solutions. Absent some unexpected legislative mischief, and if management of McCormick Place steadfastly refuses to view labor as a new profit center, let’s hope a legislatively assisted fix will succeed in restoring McCormick Place to the competitive place it deserves in our marketplace. Oh, and one more thing ‑ a way must be found to codify whatever cost-reduction fixes are put into place in order to prevent the same kind of cost creep that has undone earlier state takeovers elsewhere.

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