A small group discussion about water during the May 18 economic development summit. RoundTable photo

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The City-sponsored economic development summit held on May 18 brought together representatives from business, technology, education, arts and the not-for-profit world to brainstorm about the present and future of economic development in Evanston.

More than 150 representatives of businesses, not-for-profits and the arts attended the invitation-only summit at the Civic Center, each already registered for two of the eight small-group discussions (four groups met in each of the two break-out sessions).

The topics were technology, the arts, education and not-for-profits, workforce development, health and wellness, water industries, industries catering to baby-boomers and applied-skills industries.

Challenges, also termed “opportunities,” included some familiar ones, such as how to make Evanston attractive to small businesses, how to leverage the power of the arts community into economic gain and how to cash in on the City’s capacity to pump water. Education seemed almost ubiquitous: Evanston faces the challenges of educating students and using the intellectual capital of Northwestern University.

The Business of Water

For the last two years, the City of Evanston has discussed selling water to nearby communities that are not already its “customers.” Water from the Great Lakes is allotted by federal compact to lakeshore – and some landlocked – communities in states that border the Great Lakes. Chicago and Evanston have the two largest treatment and pumping facilities.

On a given day, the community of Evanston uses about 40 million gallons of water – somewhat less than in recent years because of conservation measures, said Utilities Director Dave Stoneback. Still, with a capacity of 108 billion gallons of water per day, the City has the impetus to develop new customers. Chicago recently announced an increase in charges to its water customers, so Evanston may solicit some of them. The “sold” water is really treated water pumped by the Evanston facility to another community; some communities add a distribution charge to their residents and businesses.

The small-group discussion centered on questions of infrastructure and increasing Evanston’s water sales. “We’re looking for new water-users, not greater use by residents,” said Catherine Hurley, the City’s sustainability programs manager. Industries that would use substantial amounts of water – such as paper, chemical and petroleum – are “major polluters,” said one member of the group, seemingly ending a discussion of attracting new water-using businesses.

Art, Art, Art

The arts-and-education group appeared to be galvanized to action. Their suggestion was to cash in on the passion shown by the members of the group to create a “multi-disciplinary team” to spread study and appreciation of the arts in Evanston. Artists and arts groups can work with school districts, particularly District 65, where several fine-arts teachers may be cut.

Space – additional space and innovative space – would help the arts to play a bigger role in the economic development of Evanston, according to the arts and education group. The City has put some money into bringing a theatre company to Howard Street, and there is momentum for having a small group of theatre companies sharing rehabbed space in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

A performing arts venue in downtown Evanston is still a hope. The City has identified at least four possible locations for a downtown performing arts venue and applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct a feasibility study. Group members suggested several ideas for flexible space in such a downtown venue, such as a 500-seat theater and a 150-seat theater, a 100-seat “black box” (experimental) venue and a 300-seat theatre. An “umbrella” organization would assume management part of it.

In addition to expanding space, group members said the spectrum of arts must be broad enough to include the youth of Evanston. “How do we get all these i-Pod-carrying kids into Pick-Staiger [Concert Hall] to listen to the Evanston Symphony Orchestra?” the group asked.

Finally, the question was asked, What is the brand for Evanston arts?” It remains to be answered.

Technology Challenges

Some have said that Evanston aspires to be a technology center, and its two business-incubator buildings – one on Davis Street and one on Chicago Avenue – house more than 40 technology startups. At least for the present, though, Skokie seems to be Evanston’s main technology challenge.

With a broader tax base, lower rents and the ability to offer some tax incentives that Evanston cannot, Skokie has been able to attract Evanston businesses ripe for growth. Evanston is a more desirable community, with its lakefront, downtown and Northwestern University, but it does lack wet labs as well as smart labs, lower rent and venture capital, and a larger cluster of buildings that would establish a technology community (the Research Park, designed for that purpose, was disbanded about a decade ago in favor of commercial development). All those things would help technology businesses, including start-ups, members of the group said.

Post-Secondary Careers

Emphasis in the two public school districts had finally settled on a goal of college and career readiness for all students. Mentoring programs, hands-on apprenticeships and skills courses at Evanston Township High School can help students who do not go to college find something more than a job, the group said.

Among the suggestions of this group were recasting the notion that a college education is necessary for a satisfying career, offering practical courses at the high school that can lead to immediate jobs that allow future advancement (“ladder career-opportunities”) and aligning job-training with anticipated future needs. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she has been in conversation with the president of Oakton Community College to bring additional teachers to teach classes at ETHS, since it is more than an hour by bus from Evanston to the Des Plaines OCC campus.

Other Challenges

Promotion of the community-wide goal of health and wellness “must be considered through the lens of equity and access,” said Bill Geiger of the McGaw Y. Income inequality often translates to lack of health care and nutrition, he said. On another front, the Y is leading a challenge to address childhood obesity through a program called “Pioneering Healthier Communities-Evanston.”

One suggestion from the not-for-profit sector was for the City essentially to “privatize” certain jobs. Sara Schastok, CEO of Evanston Community Foundation, suggested, for example, that the City, rather than hiring a youth coordinator, could offer funding to a not-for-profit organization to hire someone to do that, thus “increasing the capacity” of the not-for-profit.

Keeping the baby-boomers in the economic market was another challenge. One suggestion was to leverage their talent and wisdom into creating a “think-tank.” Sarasota, Fla. responded to its changing demographics by creating The Institute for the Ages.

North Shore Village, begun in Evanston but with members in Wilmette as well, is an organization dedicated to helping members who choose to stay in their own homes.

Next Steps

For some, the summit appeared to be a meet-and-greet, as a refrain from many of the small-group discussions was “We should keep getting together.” More specifically, the group interested in the future of technology asked, “How do we create a stronger community where all [stakeholders] know each other and can benefit each other?”

For others, particularly those interested in the arts, it appeared to be a call to action to “create a vision and a mission … [and] mobilize residents, businesses and artists. …”

Most of those who attended, including elected officials, appeared to be enthusiastic about the morning’s results.

The City said it is compiling “all [the] exciting ideas and will soon have a summary of the comments, suggestions and priorities available to view online.”

What role, if any, the City will play in furthering economic development depends upon the City Council. Requests for funding generally come through the City’s Economic Development Committee and are often shepherded by an alderman.

The enthusiasm of the business, arts and health/wellness communities could enliven this process in the coming months.

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...