Kelly Kraft leads first meeting as head of sports authority

Illinois Sports Facilities Authority Executive Director Kelly Kraft, left, conducts her first meeting with fellow board members at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Presiding over her first meeting today as head of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, incoming chief executive officer Kelly Kraft sought to address the growing debt load from Soldier Field renovations completed in 2001.

Kraft and the public agency’s seven-member board of directors agreed to select financial advisors who would determine how to refinance the bonds for the project. The public’s share of the costs has been estimated at $432 million.

Concern over the Soldier Field debt has grown as payments increased from $6.3 million in 2002 to $26 million in the fiscal year that ended in June. Payments are expected to rise to $88.5 million by 2032.

The agency, which owns and operates U.S. Cellular Field, saw a profit of $550,000 in the fiscal year ending in June, according to an audit by an outside firm that was presented to the board Wednesday.
 
But board  member and retired banker Norm Bobins urged the agency to not get "too complacent."

Total debt payments are expected to increase by about $2 million in this fiscal year, which would wipe out the profit if revenues and all other expenses remain about the same.
 
If the agency’s income — primarily from hotel taxes — falls short of what is needed to make a full payment on the Soldier Field debt, the city must cover any shortfall. Two years ago it was $185,000.

Board member Jim Reynolds, who described hotel tax revenue as a “volatile” source of funds, said he hoped the agency could succeed in lowering the rate for the Soldier Field bonds during the current fiscal year.

“We’ve got to take proactive action right now,” said Reynolds, founder and chairman of Loop Capital.
 
Commercial events at U.S. Cellular Field, such as concerts, are another potential source of income, but the last such event came more than a year ago, in August 2011, when an appearance by televangelist Joel Osteen raised $178,000.

The board has bounced around ideas for adding more events for more than a year without success.
 
Kraft, a former TV reporter who joined Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration in 2009, hopes to turn things around.

She suggested filming movies at the ballpark and increasing the number of charitable events, and said there needs to be collaborative effort between the White Sox and the authority. The team must approve events, but revenue goes to the authority.
 
The board selected Kraft as chief executive in a 4-3 vote last month after Quinn replaced one of his four appointees the night before the vote.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his three board appointees had preferred Diana Ferguson, who brought years of corporate experience. Kraft filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, a matter she has said is resolved.

Despite previous vocal opposition to Kraft, the board members greeted her with quiet applause.
 
“The decision’s been made. It was never personal against Kelly,” Reynolds said after the meeting. “The board voted and we’re going to work hard to make it successful here.”

Kraft said her priorities are protecting taxpayers, evaluating opportunities to refinance the debt and maintaining the ballpark.
 
“I’ve been hitting the ground running,” she said afterward.
 
jahopkins@tribune.com
Twitter @jaredshopkins