A rendering of a $90 million hotel, developed and managed by First Hospitality Group and designed by Chicago architect Jackie Koo, that's proposed for Navy Pier Credit: Courtesy Navy Pier

It came as a surprise, back in July, when Michelle Boone, then-commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, let it slip via an e-mail to friends that she’d be leaving her job in a week to become head of programming at Navy Pier.

Boone had logged five years in the catbird seat (previously occupied by the legendary Lois Weisberg for more than two decades) and would soon be two years past what must have been her worst moment at DCASE—the Great Chicago Fire Festival fiasco. She’d championed the Redmoon event before it fizzled in front of 30,000 spectators, banks of cameras, and her boss, the mayor, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if her own job had gone up in flames.

But maybe the fizzle was catching up with her now. Why else would she trade her position as cultural czar of the entire city to take on programming for a tiny appendage, a mere finger in the lake?

OK, it’s a high-profile, bejeweled appendage, in the midst of a pricey makeover, but still.

“It was a really exciting opportunity,” Boone said in a phone interview last week. “I like tackling big ideas, so this notion of coming on board to build an arts and culture program at the pier, something that has never existed before, was too compelling to turn down,” she added.

We’ll have to wait a year or two for tax records to surface before we find out what her new job will pay. Navy Pier used to be run by a government body, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, or McPier, so-called for the joint state-city venture also in charge of McCormick Place. But in 2011, McPier handed pier management off to a newly created nonprofit corporation, Navy Pier, Inc., and it’s now operated under the less stringent transparency rules that nonprofits enjoy. No need to worry on Boone’s behalf: the pier is known for generous salaries to its administrators. Total compensation for Marilynn Gardner, its CEO, topped $400,000 in 2014, the latest year for which records are available.

The pier celebrated its 100th birthday this year with the opening of a towering new 196-foot Ferris wheel, a second food court, an improved outdoor promenade, and the lively Polk Bros Park and fountain in front of the main entrance. A performance lawn on the west end is still under construction.

The next phase of the “Centennial Vision” for the pier was approved by the City Council this month. It includes a “welcome” pavilion and seasonal ice rink for Polk Bros Park, recreational boat docks, a swooping 17-foot-tall walkway and rectangular reflecting pool that’ll arguably mar the pier’s historic eastern tip, and a 240-room hotel that’ll go up on the south side of the Festival Hall exhibition space and take over its fantastic views of the lake and city.

The only part of the second phase that’s currently funded, however, is the $90 million steel-and-glass hotel, which will be developed and managed by First Hospitality Group and designed by Chicago architect Jackie Koo.

And we don’t know who will own the hotel. According to a pier spokesman, the details on that “are not final.”

Whether Navy Pier, Inc. will share all the details is another question. Two years ago the Better Government Association filed suit to force the pier to comply with the FOIA rules that apply to government. BGA’s attorney, Matt Topic of Loevy & Loevy, says its suit hinges on the question of whether running Navy Pier is a governmental function. He expects it to go to trial later this fall or early next year.

Between eight and nine million people visit the pier every year—it’s the state’s most popular tourist attraction, according to Navy Pier’s website. But Navy Pier, Inc., wants a lot more people to come, especially locals. And it wants them to come year-round, not just in the summer, or when the in-laws are visiting. Navy Pier, Inc., thinks the way to do that is to make the pier a hub of arts and cultural programming.

To that end, it’s had a consulting firm, Dickerson Global Advisors, working for a year and a half on a yet-to-be completed strategic plan. At a sparsely attended meeting for Navy Pier neighbors in August, the consultants discussed a list of priorities like telling Chicago stories, connecting to the neighborhoods, focusing on the environment, and creating opportunities for artists.

Boone, who’ll be implementing this “arts and discovery” plan, notes that there’s already culture at Navy Pier, home to the Chicago Children’s Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater (which is building its third venue, a flexible, all-season space, under the tent of the former Skyline Stage).

“But to come for works actually presented and produced by the pier will be a new experience,” Boone says. She’ll collaborate with Chicago arts groups and artists to develop a year-round “season” of free events, and the pier will be “positioned as a cultural destination,” she says. A tourist attraction, yes, but also, “like Millennium Park, a place for high-quality engagement with the arts.”  v