Becky Carroll, who has worked for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, runs C-Strategies, a public affairs and strategic communications firm. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
A major contract for updated and expanded concessions at Midway Airport cleared an initial hurdle Thursday despite questions about the involvement of a political operative who has worked for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The mayor has pitched the lucrative, 15-year deal as a way to create new jobs, increase the Southwest Side airport’s concession area by more than 50 percent, boost city sales tax collections and increase the amount of involvement of minority- and female-owned businesses.
One of the new businesses that would take part in the spoils is C-Strategies, a public affairs and strategic communications company run by Becky Carroll. She used to work at the Emanuel-controlled Chicago Public Schools and also ran a political action committee aligned with the mayor. Before that, she was a spokeswoman for Blagojevich, the former governor now serving a federal prison term for political corruption.
Carroll’s company is listed as one of 17 local companies taking part in the contract sought by Midway Partnership LLC — a joint venture of three companies that would lease, develop and run the concessions. Her involvement represents a 2 percent stake in future airport concessions, according to information the mayor’s office gave to aldermen. The contract is expected to generate tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue.
Noting Carroll’s background as a "political operative," Ald. John Arena questioned her involvement during a City Council Aviation Committee hearing.
"What is her expertise?" the 45th Ward alderman asked aviation officials.
Tiffany Green, managing deputy commissioner for the Department of Aviation, said Carroll would "provide day-to-day management consulting services" related to inventory and warehouse audits, marketing objectives and policies, outreach and employee recruiting.
Arena still had questions after that explanation.
"Her website says basically she’s a PR consultant," Arena said in an interview. "Is that what we need in order to do concessions and why are we paying that contract? This is what we’re trying to understand."
In city economic disclosure statements, Hudson Group — a major retail company that’s part of the joint venture — also lists C-Strategies as being paid $25,000 for five months of lobbying work. But Carroll, who’s not registered as a city lobbyist, said she has done no lobbying work to get the contract approved.
"I do strategic communications and public affairs, but I don’t lobby," Carroll said in a text message. "I can assure you I’m not a lobbyist."
Michael Mullaney, a spokesman for Hudson Group, said the listing of Carroll as a lobbyist "was in error."
He also said Carroll’s company would conduct outreach meetings for existing and new employee job opportunities, analyze and execute marketing programs, conduct inventory and warehouse audits and do communications consulting. C-Strategies "will receive retail operations training and mentorship from Hudson Group."
Carroll wasn’t the only City Hall insider who’s got a piece of the proposed contract. So does Martin Cabrera, founder of Cabrera Capital and the mayor’s city Plan Commission chairman. Cabrera is part of Cielo Concessions, which has .7 percent of the overall contract, according to information provided to aldermen.
The other two companies that are part of the joint venture are SSP American Inc., a food and beverage concession operator, and Vantage Airport Group, an airport development, management and investment company. The joint venture was picked through a modified bidding process.
The aviation panel forwarded the contract to the full council for a vote Wednesday. Arena was the lone no vote on the committee.
In other action, the committee also approved selling 190 acres at the west end of O’Hare International Airport to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority for $96 million. It’s land the authority wants to use to provide western access to O’Hare — a longtime goal of DuPage County officials.
The money Chicago stands to receive would be spent on O’Hare projects, Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said.