The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

April 15, 2013

City, Cubs push $500 million Wrigley renovation


Associated Press

— CHICAGO (AP) — The historic home of the Chicago Cubs will get a $500 million facelift, including its first electronic outfield video board, as part of a hard-fought agreement announced Sunday night between the City of Chicago and the ball team.

Wrigley Field also will host an expanded number of night games under the announced pact, as part of Cubs owner Tom Ricketts' plans to renovate the second-oldest ballpark in the major leagues, boost business and make baseball's most infamous losers competitive again.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel hailed what the two sides called a "framework" agreement in a joint statement issued Sunday night, noting that it includes no taxpayer funding. That had been one of the original requests of the Ricketts family in a long-running renovation dispute that at times involved everything from cranky ballpark neighbors to ward politics and even the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama.

"This framework allows the Cubs to restore the Friendly Confines (of Wrigley) and pursue their economic goals, while respecting the rights and quality of life of its neighbors," Emanuel said in a news release sent to The Associated Press.

Still uncertain was how the agreement will sit with owners of buildings across the street from Wrigley who provide rooftop views of the ball games under an agreement with the Cubs that goes back years. This month they threatened to sue if the renovations obstruct their views, which they claimed would drive them out of business. Messages left late Sunday with a spokesman for the rooftop owners were not immediately returned.

The statement from Emanuel's office says a "video board" is planned for left field and a second sign would be erected in right field patterned on an existing Toyota sign in left field. The statement does not indicate how large the video screen or second sign would be, saying only that "the Cubs will work with the city on placement of both ... to minimize impact on nearby rooftops to the extent consistent with the team's needs."

The city and ball club said they hoped that the agreement would allow the Cubs to obtain necessary city approvals for the work by the end of the current baseball season.

The Ricketts family, which bought the Cubs in 2009 for $845 million, initially sought tax funding for renovation plans. With that out in the new agreement, the owners will seek to open new revenue streams outside the stadium. Under the agreement, the Ricketts family would be allowed to build a 175-room hotel, a plaza, and an office building with retail space and a health club.

Also included in the agreement are plans for 40 night games, four yearly concerts and easing of restrictions on smaller events. Currently the team plays about 30 night games. The plan also addresses chronic complaints about parking in the densely populated Wrigleyville neighborhood, including the addition of 1,000 "remote" parking spots that will be free and come with shuttle service.

"We are anxious to work with our community as we seek the approvals required to move the project forward," Ricketts said in the statement.

The site of Babe Ruth's "called shot" home run in the 1932 World Series and more heartbreak than Cubs fans would like to remember, the 99-year-old Wrigley is only younger than Boston's Fenway Park. It has long been a treasured showplace for baseball purists — night games were only added in 1988 — but team officials for years have desperately wanted a true upgrade, saying it costs as much as $15 million a year just to keep up with basic repairs.

The ballpark has also played no small part in the lore of the team, as fans were reminded April 10 when someone delivered a goat's head in a box addressed to team chairman Tom Ricketts. Neither the team nor the Chicago Police Department have talked about a possible motive for the strange delivery, but as every fan knows it was in the 1945 World Series when a tavern owner arrived at the park with his pet goat — which had a ticket. According to legend, the owner was told that the goat smelled and was denied entry. The angry tavern owner then put the "Curse of the Billy Goat" on the Cubs — and the team has not been back to the World Series since.

Getting to an agreement hasn't been easy. After failing to reach an agreement when Mayor Richard Daley was in office, the family kept talking after Emanuel took office in 2011. Emanuel the next year said city officials and the Ricketts family were in the "final stages" of talks on a renovation plan that could include public help.

But even presidential politics presented an obstacle for the plans at one point.

During the 2012 election, the patriarch of the Ricketts family, which created the TD Ameritrade brokerage firm, was considering a $10 million campaign against Obama that would refer to the racially incendiary sermons delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at a Chicago church the president once attended. J. Joseph Ricketts dropped the proposal, but the episode brought a huge dose of unwanted bad press.

The news especially angered Emanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff. Emanuel, staffers said, was so livid he refused to take phone calls from Tom Ricketts.

In recent weeks, fans also had to deal with the unlikely specter of the Cubs leaving Chicago. With the talks bogged down, the mayor of nearby Rosemont piped up, saying the village located near O'Hare International Airport would be willing to let the Cubs have 25 acres free of charge to build a replica of Wrigley Field.