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Preserving a Legacy and Protecting the People’s Pier

The People’s Pier was envisioned more than 100 years ago by famed architect Daniel Burnham as a place for and of the people. That sentiment is critical to the organization’s nonprofit mission and holds true now more than ever.

It’s a privilege to steward this historic, lakefront treasure and an honor to offer free arts and cultural programs to our millions of annual guests. Yet we find ourselves facing a challenge that we’ve never seen before. No one is immune to the impacts of this crisis, and like our fellow cultural institutions, we have had to make difficult decisions. We acknowledge that further difficulty lies ahead. Yet, we look toward the future with great optimism. We know we have the support of the community, a team of dedicated staff members, corporate and philanthropic partners and partner businesses who believe in our mission.

Since 2011, Navy Pier has operated as an independent nonprofit organization. Although we maintain facilities on publically-owned property, we receive no public tax dollars to support our operating costs. The Pier relies on generous philanthropic support from individuals, foundations and corporations with the majority of revenue earned through the diverse businesses that operate on the Pier every day. As a top cultural destination for residents and visitors alike, we also generate millions of tax dollars contributing important revenues for the city and state.

When Navy Pier closed its doors on March 16 and the shelter-in-place order began, every source of earned revenue came to an abrupt halt. This has not only impacted the Pier, but has hurt the local artists and cultural organizations with whom we partner, our nearly 70 independent on-site business partners, pop-up neighborhood markets and the shows and events that call Navy Pier home while enriching the lives of local residents and visitors to Chicago. Collectively, the restaurants, attractions, retailers and nonprofit partners, including Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Children’s Museum, employ 3,000 people annually, with a majority of revenues earned during the summer season.

As one of the largest first-employers of youth in our city and as a significant supporter of local artists and cultural organizations, Navy Pier’s leadership has assessed every option available with the aim of lessening the impact felt by individuals and preserving as many jobs as possible.

To cut costs, Navy Pier’s CEO took a salary reduction of 25% with executive leadership staff taking a 20% reduction, planned capital improvements were postponed, hiring of critical positions was suspended, and budgets were reduced wherever possible. Each decision, none of them easy, was made with our mission and people in mind. We hope that the decisions we make will mean that our team members, partner artists, and on-site businesses will be ready and able to welcome guests back to the lakefront to experience the very best of Chicago. We know we’re not alone in these challenges. We’ve all had to make difficult choices as we navigate this economic stalemate, protect our workers, and cautiously, yet optimistically, plan to safely reopen.

To that end, Navy Pier recently sought and secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, which granted the organization $2.5 million to help preserve the salaries and benefits for eight weeks to retain 55 full-time administrative employees while revenue generation is completely halted. The loan has also made it possible for the Pier to retain and provide essential job training remotely with pay to 170 part-time seasonal guest service and Pier Park employees to prepare for summer and retained 26 full-time tradespeople, 21 whom were previously laid off who were able to return and begin preparing the Pier for its impending reopening. As outlined within the parameters of the PPP loan, funds may cover up to $100,000 of each full-time employee’s salary, support benefits, satisfy rent/mortgage payments, cover utilities, etc.

Unlike other similar nonprofit cultural institutions, Navy Pier does not receive public funding from city, county or state tax revenue nor does it have an endowment to rely upon. The PPP loan was a critical source of funding that is helping to bridge the gap created by the Pier’s closure and lost revenues.

It’s during challenging times like these when we must rely on our mission and values to guide our decisions. We have adapted our programming to share digital experiences with the public – showcasing local artists and performers who have lost all in-person performance opportunities. While closed, we have also repurposed the Pier’s available open spaces to host community blood drives in partnership with the American Red Cross. We are collaborating with partner institutions across the city to determine how we can all adapt, safely reopen, and continue to serve the community.

As the People’s Pier, we are determined to remain a truly great civic space and resource for the community that is accessible to all with no admission fee. We look forward to one day soon welcoming artists from neighborhoods across Chicago to our stages and again gathering together in an environment like no other. Until then, we continue to wish good health and safety to all.

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