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Mayor Emanuel debuts city-wide illumination plan to boost Chicago tourism

The mayor argues that a plan to spotlight some of Chicago's most iconic buildings will boost tourism
The mayor argues that a plan to spotlight some of Chicago's most iconic buildings will boost tourism
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented yesterday a novel idea to increase tourism to the city. The mayor wants to turn Chicago into a glittering metropolis by lighting up city bridges, iconic buildings, CTA platforms, and other locations. Emanuel predicts that such a widespread project would “transform the world’s opinion of Chicago” and capture the attention of visitors, according to the Chicago Tribune’s article, available at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-06-04/news/chi-chicago-wants-to-lightup-iconic-metropolis-for-tourists-20140604_1_choose-chicago-chicago-river-light-pollution.

In an effort to “boost Chicago’s standing in the worldwide fight for tourist dollars,” Mayor Emanuel seeks to take a cue from Paris, the City of Lights, by literally spotlighting Chicago’s most recognizable and admirable architecture. The city plans to highlight the Willis Tower (forever known to all pre-2009 Chicagoans as the Sears Tower), Aqua Tower, the modern wing at the Art Institute, and the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

The City of Chicago will accept bids from interested companies for a city-wide lighting plan that will illuminate some of Chicago’s most beloved features. Certain aspects of the project, such as finding a way to light the bridges over the Chicago River, the riverwalk, the CTA’s elevated platforms, and Lower Wacker Drive, will likely prove to be more problematic than others.

Such a massive undertaking has, of course, garnered a significant outpouring of criticism in a city that is already struggling with financial difficulties. Some of the icons that Mayor Emanuel wishes to feature are already strapped for cash.

For example, the Willis Tower is facing debt of troubling proportions and was recently put in special servicing for its large debt. While occupancy at The Tower Formerly Known as Sears has climbed 10% since 2012 (of course attributable to the building’s starring role in the recent blockbuster Divergent), the owners of the property are struggling to repay their loans and recover from the humiliation of being downgraded to the U.S.'s second tallest building. (For more on this conundrum, see http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/breaking/chi-willis-tower-debt-put-into-special-servicing-20140603,0,5228576.story).

Mayor Emanuel avoided any discussion of the cost of this project or how the city plans to pay for it. Eve Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the City of Chicago, indirectly addressed these concerns by asserting that, essentially, this is a problem for Future Chicago. “If a firm puts forward ideas that excite the city…,” Rodriguez said, “we would engage private partners about funding the project.” Apparently, funding for the illumination project is something that she and Scarlett O’Hara can think about tomorrow at Tara.

Furthermore, the City of Chicago has yet to address how much electricity city-wide illumination would require or how much such a project would increase light pollution. Audrey Fischer, director of the Chicago Astronomical Society, called the plan “totally misguided,” given the heavy light pollution that the city already faces. Rodriguez counters that any final proposals must be energy efficient. Regardless, fans of stargazing should probably plan a trip to the country for the next meteor shower.

One final rationale for the project seems almost comically simplistic. The city points to six international, tourist-laden cities—London, Barcelona, Madrid, Edinburgh, Prague and Berlin—that possess clear light pathways to connect popular tourist destinations. Chicago, by contrast, offers no such connection between its seven “disconnected clusters” of Navy Pier, the John Hancock building, Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, Millennium Park, Willis Tower, Buckingham Fountain and the museum campus. The city argues that their lighting proposal will help tourists navigate their tourist experience.

Admittedly, the mayor has pointed to some of the world’s most beautiful cities as locations to copy, and an illumination project that would turn this already magnificent city into a permanently twinkle-lit metropolis would undoubtedly look astonishing. But as for the city’s argument that Chicago’s tourism is suffering comparatively because its visitors can’t see? Possibly the mayor is overlooking some of the other alluring features of those six international tourist destinations.

Boosting tourism to the city will certainly have a positive long-term effect on Chicago’s finances, and such attempts to make the Windy City more appealing are admirable to a certain extent. However, Chicago has never been excellent about allocating its resources in the wisest manner. This project seems like another frivolity that has the potential to cost Chicago a great deal of money that it either doesn’t have or that could be more effectively spent elsewhere. As has already been mentioned, city-wide illumination would unquestioningly be beautiful. But most Chicagoans will agree that their beloved city is already a genuine beauty.

Those interested in the illumination fad can read more about the trend with The Epoch Times’s coverage at http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/707254-let-there-be-light-behind-the-trend-of-illuminating-cities-for-art/.