Chicago taxpayers spent $66 million renovating a convention center into an emergency coronavirus hospital that ended up only treating 38 patients. Further, the contract to renovate the facility went to a politically connected company instead of one that said it would waive fees or donate such money to coronavirus relief organizations.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday that top aides to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended the decision to spend $1.7 million per patient on the renovations, calling it an “insurance policy” for the unfounded fear that Chicago’s hospitals would be overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, told the outlet that he was “incredibly proud of” the converted facility, adding that the millions of dollars in taxpayer money was “not spent in vain.”
Taxpayers stuck with the bill may see things differently. The contract for the renovations was awarded to a politically connected company called Walsh Construction after a short search. The project was initiated with the federal government and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the Sun-Times reported. A city-state governmental body called McPier – which runs the convention center and owns a firm called Navy Pier – made the decision to hire Walsh, even though it had received just hours earlier proposals from three other construction companies. The Sun-Times found:
- McPier solicited proposals from three giants in construction: Walsh, Pepper Construction and Power Construction Company. And it hired Walsh even though Power said it either would forgo any fees or donate them to pandemic relief because it didn’t want to profit from the pandemic. Walsh charged $65.9 million, including more than $5.1 million in fees, records show.
- An official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which hired McPier to build the facility, for which the federal government is covering at least 75 percent of the costs — said in internal emails that Power or Pepper was the best choice. But that decision was left to McPier, which picked Walsh, saying its rates were not “significantly different” than the others and that it “had the most experience . . . working with the [Army Corps] and working on emergency projects.”
Further, the day before Walsh was selected, the chief executive officer of Navy Pier Inc, Marilyn Kelly Gardner, emailed McPier’s chief executive officer Larita Clark to bolster Walsh as the choice. This is notable because Navy Pier has ties to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley’s daughter is also on the board of Navy Pier.
Chicago officials looked at three other facilities before settling on McCormick Place as the site of the emergency hospital. The Sun-Times reported that the other three facilities were previously closed hospitals that would have cost $50 million to renovate all three for patient care – about $16 million less than it cost to renovate just McCormick Place. Those other three sites never treated a single patient. One of the former hospitals, Blue Island, will be ready if the coronavirus returns in a second wave.