Italian sports museum building to be bought
Little Italy landmark will change hands, but museum will stay in business
07/18/2012 10:00 PM
The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, the troubled Taylor Street museum filled with memorabilia from some of the best-known athletes in American history, is close to having its home sold, community leaders say.
The building, located at 1431 W. Taylor St. in the heart of Little Italy, could soon be sold to an Iranian business man, under a deal advocates say would put the museum on stable financial footing.
The museum was founded in 1977 as Elmwood Park’s Italian American Boxing Hall of Fame by its current chairman, George Randazzo. In 2000, the museum moved to Little Italy with a brand new building dubbed The Jerry Colangelo Center, named after the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks owner, a hall of fame inductee and patron.
But soon after the recession began, the museum hit troubled times. Saddled with big debt from the construction of its new building, the museum defaulted on three loans worth more than $9.4 million in July 2010. A civil lawsuit from the museum’s lender, Bridgeview Bank, sought to take ownership of the museum’s memorabilia, which had backed the loans.
With items like a Mario Andretti racecar, a jacket from Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s last game, and a bronze statue of Joe DiMaggio on the line, the museum pitched a deal to its lender Bridgeview Bank. According to an article from Crain’s Chicago Business in November 2011, the bank would receive a lump-sum payment of $6.5 million, and the museum would get a new $800,000 loan.
In the plan, the museum said it intended to sell the building.
According to two key community leaders, the deal to sell the building is still being finalized but is close to being official. The building would be leased back to the museum, but other uses could also be in store for the building.
“The deal is still being negotiated, and the final outcome when the deal is completed is that the museum will stay on Taylor Street,” said Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting 4 Communities. “I think all the details of how the space is utilized are still being worked through.”
Oscar D’Angelo, founder of the University Village Association often referred to as “the mayor of Little Italy,” said he hopes the deal, when reached, offers some stability to the hall of fame. Losing the museum would have been a big blow to the area.
“It would have been devastating,” he said. “We have had a series of successes on Taylor Street, and for the crown jewel to have been in bankruptcy would have been devastating. It gives the neighborhood a sense of pride. It promulgates the achievements of Italian-Americans, and in large part our message.”
The museum might have to be reformulated to continue on, he said. Adding a restaurant or another business to the museum’s first floor while moving the museum to the upper levels would be a good option, he said. Overall, it’s simply too reliant on admission fees right now, he added.
“Obviously, museums are suffering throughout the country — there aren’t many that have stabilized attendance,” D’Angelo said. “But I don’t know that museums are predicated on attendance as the way they should survive.”
It could draw in more people by marketing itself better, particularly seniors and students, D’Angelo said.
“One of the truly important features of the project that had been neglected was a strong marketing program,” he said. “Every day there are hundreds of seniors, perhaps thousands of seniors who would like to have something to do, and that would be something they could tap. They should also engage in conversations with CPS [Chicago Public Schools].”
George Randazzo, the museum’s founder, declined to comment on the potential sale.