At its March 22 meeting, City Council voted to approve an award of $100,000 to the Technology Innovation Center (TIC, or the “Incubator”) on the condition that TIC add a member of the City staff, most likely Community Development Director Lehman Walker, to its board of directors. Funding came from the Economic Development Fund.
The “Incubator” provides conference room space, office services, advice and programming to startup companies (primarily high-tech) that lease offices at 820 Davis St. and 825 Chicago Ave. The goal is to foster the growth of new companies who will stay in Evanston and provide a steady source of local jobs. The program started as a joint venture between the City and Northwestern University in 1991, but the City support ended in 2000 and Northwestern support ceased around 2004, according to a City staff memo.
Charles Happ, a private investor, entered after institutional support dried up, according to the staff memo, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, and Mr. Happ. The reformed Technology Innovation Center, with a board of directors made up of Mr. Happ, his wife, and TIC Chair Tim Lavengood, has continued in its mission to provide support to emerging small, high-tech businesses. In part at the urging of Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, the Economic Development Committee recommended the $100,000 grant to assist the TIC in its mission.
The measure did not pass City Council without controversy. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, expressed concern over the TIC’s small, tightly knit board of directors.” I’m going to vote for it, but I have serious concerns,” she said, citing the composition of the board, a need to track the performance of graduates and to report to the City. “I do think it needs to be run in a more businesslike manner,” she said, “… more like EvMark [now called Downtown Evanston].”
Mr. Happ addressed Ald. Fiske’s concerns over the board of directors by first welcoming a City representative but questioned the logic behind adding board members who had not made significant financial contributions to the organization. “Why would we expand the board [by adding] someone who makes no contribution?” he asked in response to Ald. Fiske push to add representatives from businesses that were once in the incubator program.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, questioned the financial statements that the TIC provided City Council. “There are no rents recorded in their receipts,” she said. Further, she pointed out that the $100,000 grant represents 50 percent of the TIC’s annual budget, adding that she did not think the City should provide 50 percent of any organization’s budget. Funding should come from sources other than the City, like matching grants or other aid; “There’s a better way of supporting it,” she concluded.
Mr. Bobkiewicz cautioned the Council to separate the real estate from the programming function of the TIC. The TIC does not own the buildings in which incubator businesses are located, and, therefore, businesses do not pay rent to the TIC, he said. He also cautioned against demanding too much City involvement. “You want to go back to a model in place 17 years ago,” he said, “What we see this $100,000 as doing is being that public seed money [that will help] bring more money in, have it flourish, and be the real centerpiece of economic development in this community.”
Mayor Tisdahl spoke on behalf of the measure, saying, “I understand all your concerns, but having worked with the TIC for years I have concluded that they are the best game in town.” The measure passed 9-0.