The landmark Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago, which has hosted 12 U.S. presidents, opened in 2008 after a two-year, $116 million renovation. Inside the Beaux Arts structure, built in 1910, buffed marble staircases greet guests spending up to $699 a night for rooms with views of Lake Michigan.
What’s surprising isn’t the opulent makeover: It’s how the project was financed. The work was subsidized by a federal development program intended to help poor communities. (Quick - act surprised!)
The biggest beneficiary of taxpayer help for the Blackstone revamp was Prudential Financial Inc., the second-largest U.S. life insurer. The company got $15.6 million in tax credits from the U.S. Department of the Treasury for helping to fund the project, according to Chicago city records, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its March issue.
Since 2003, some of the world’s biggest financial companies, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., U.S. Bancorp, JPMorgan Chase and Prudential, have taken advantage of a federal subsidy that will cost taxpayers $10.1 billion -- and most of the public has never heard of it.
Investors have used the program, called New Markets Tax Credits, to help build more than 300 upscale projects, including hotels, condominiums, office buildings and a car museum, on streets far from poverty, according to Treasury Department records released through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
Money spent on high-end development could have been used to build more than 1,000 job-training centers, medical clinics and schools. The program, endorsed by Republican Senator Rick Santorum and House Speaker Dennis Hastert and adopted by Congress, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Building high-end commercial projects goes against the intent of the New Markets program, says Cliff Kellogg, a former senior policy adviser at the Treasury Department who helped design New Markets.
“Things like luxury hotels are entirely contrary to what we set out to do,” says Kellogg, who’s now a bank consultant. “Some hotels may create jobs and spur other nearby investment, but you have to ask if these projects prevent worthwhile ones from getting done.”
Some of the subsidized luxury projects may not have required federal aid at all, the Government Accountability Office found in a 2010 study.