Evanston’s thriving arts culture and its strong downtown businesses are a fine setting for a performing arts center, consultant Kennedy Smith of the not-for-profit group Community Land Use told City Council members on April 25.

Ms. Smith said her goal was to help forge “win-win scenarios” among the arts community, downtown businesses and the owner of the building that once housed the Varsity Theater. A portion of the former movie theater remains in somewhat good – or at least, reparable or restorable – condition on the upper floor of the building just north of Church Street on Sherman Avenue now home to a Gap store. Ms. Smith, a consultant to the Downtown Evanston organization and an ad-hoc committee studying the issue of a downtown performing arts center, said the goal is to strengthen the cultural connections, stimulate economic growth and find a way for the owner to use the building for economic development without losing income, she added.

Ms. Smith said she had interviewed performing arts groups, City staff, and property owners and had called in experts to look at the former Varsity Theater building. Among her findings and observations, Ms. Smith noted that Evanston “is truly unique in that it has a strong concentration of world-class performing arts schools and emerging arts organizations. It sets you apart in the world of performing arts across the country. Oddly, though, there is no performing arts center, which is unusual for a community of this size” with its “enormous need.”

There are a few options for a performing arts center in the downtown area, all but one of them involving at least the upper floor of the Varsity Theater building, which could house two separate groups and have “flexible” space for another group, Ms. Smith said. A final option would be to use another site altogether, although no alternative location was mentioned.

.”If the community decides to have a performing arts center, it is important the rehab or construction be virtually debt-free,” she said. Performing arts groups cannot afford market-rate rent, and big-name groups that could afford it would not necessarily be suited to the character of the space. No estimates of the cost of a performing arts center were given; however, Ms. Smith said she believed that a performing arts center could be constructed in the downtown area at virtually no cost to the City. Money could come from tax-increment financing (TIF) income, tax abatement, various tax credits (historic preservation and new market tax credits, as examples) and private donors – supporters of historic preservation, for example if not supporters of the arts, she said.

The role of the City would be to strengthen the arts as an engine of economic development. Ms. Smith said, “Evanston’s role as an arts incubator is under-tapped and should be strengthened.”

She also suggested bringing tastes of performance art to public spaces in downtown Evanston, so that people would start thinking in those terms; converting the ad-hoc task force into a permanent one; creating a not-for-profit entity to raise money and manage the performing arts groups and making arts a more explicit part of the City’s economic development strategy.

Ms. Smith said she would have a report with more detailed analyses in the next few weeks.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...