Chicago wants to join the growing ranks of ''fun'' cities that have found a way to attract tourists and keep residents downtown after office hours.
The Windy City's somewhat controversial candidate as a new ''festival marketplace'' is Navy Pier.
Navy Pier is a narrow piece of land that juts a half mile into Lake Michigan just north of the Chicago River. For anyone standing at the end of the pier, it offers a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline. Every few months, a long, low building that lines the pier is used for convention exhibits, trade shows, or city festivals. But at other times the building, originally constructed as a storage and shipping facility and used for two decades as a branch of the University of Illinois, is something of a white elephant.
''It costs the city $2 million a year just to have it sitting there doing nothing - it's greatly underused,'' insists Chicago public works commissioner Jerome Butler.
City leaders have wrestled for years with the question of what, if anything, to do with Navy Pier. They've mulled its possibilities for housing and office space and have listened patiently as developers proposed various commercial uses.
''You name it -- we've thought about it,'' says Mr. Butler.
But nothing jelled until Chicago officials decided three years ago to hire the Maryland-based Rouse Company, first to do a feasibility study and later to draft a workable plan for the pier. Butler admits it was the real estate development company's ''track record'' of success and its ''sensitivity'' in mixing public and private uses in urban areas that had the most appeal. Rouse, sometimes referred to as the Walt Disney of downtown redevelopment, has 54 retail projects in operation, including Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Baltimore's Harborplace.
Navy Pier has about four times the Faneuil Hall land space. The Rouse plan for the pier, still far from finished, calls for a mix of restaurants, small specialty shops, a 400-to-450-room hotel, a children's play park that city officials insist will be ''educational,'' and continued use of the large-domed auditorium at the eastern tip of the pier for public and private events. There will also be a promenade, a museum and arts center, and a large parking garage that will dip underground. No large department stores are to be recruited for the marketplace. The focus, as deputy public works commissioner Elizabeth McLean puts it, will be on ''entertainment-type shopping.''
The hope, if financing arrangements can be worked out and if the city council gives the green light after extensive public hearings, is that the new Navy Pier will open by 1986. William Fulton, Rouse project director and vice-president, says he thinks the city may earn $8 million to $9 million in annual sales and property tax revenue after the project has been operating three or four years. By the fifth year, he says, Rouse estimates that the project, including the hotel, may generate some $250 million to $300 million a year in sales.
As with all such projects, there is a sizable start-up cost. Chicago, which must ready the land, make pier improvements such as extending the sewer system, and streamline bus and road access to the pier, will be expected to kick in $60 million of the initial $277 million cost.
And the Windy City will have an unusually strong vested interest in the success of the project. In its tentative agreement with Rouse, the city will share in the net revenues on a 50-50 basis, an achievement of which Butler is proud. By comparison, Boston nets a mere 25 percent share of revenues on Faneuil Hall and last year made $1.6 million from that arrangement.
''We decided as a matter of policy that we were going to assume that this would be a successful project and opt for maximum city participation,'' says Butler.
While most Chicagoans would like to believe the project will prosper and few roadblocks have been put in the project's path so far by the city council, there are those here who have their doubts.
Friends of Downtown, a private citizens group, has warned that the city's investment share may prove more costly than expected and has questioned whether or not the project will ever really make a profit.
Some businesses worry that the added competition may hurt already lagging sales. But city-financed surveys insist the impact will be minimal.
And some citizens fret that Navy Pier's somewhat remote location may work to its disadvantage. As one Chicagoan says, it is not a place where lunch-hour crowds can be expected to gather.
But project enthusiasts are betting on the improved parking facilities, new ramp access to the pier, and a new people-mover or shuttle system on the pier as effective remedies for that problem.