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After more than a year of talks, the Evanston Sports Federation (ESF), composed of Evanston Baseball and Softball Association (EBSA), Evanston AYSO, Evanston Lacrosse and the Evanston Township High School Wildkits, notified City officials last week that it has withdrawn its offer to establish a youth sports complex on the site of the former recycling center on Oakton Street.
The parties apparently agreed on most aspects of the proposal. Still to be worked out were the amount of annual rent ESF should pay ($1/year or market-rate), parking and access, and storage.
At present the City uses the outside area for storing garbage and yard-waste carts and uses the indoor storage area for “off- season” storage, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz: snowplow blades in summer and kayaks and other boats in winter.
More than 18 months ago, ESF proposed to invest about $750,000 of private money on buildouts for indoor field space for football, lacrosse, baseball and soccer activities and practice. Because of its proximity to James Park, ESF officials said they thought converting the mostly vacant building into a sports facility was in keeping with the character of the area.
The City, under ESF’s proposal, would cover the cost of roof repairs and would have a buy-out option if the City finds a better use for the facility after two years.
Rent and Return on Investment
ESF’s proposal met a chilly reception from three aldermen at a June meeting of the Administration and Public Works Committee.
Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose Eighth Ward the building sits, said at that meeting that she would work to defeat the proposal. She called the proposed 25-year lease at $1/year “an outrage.”
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, also said at that meeting that she did not support the idea, both because of the low rent and because she thought an indoor sports facility should be folded into the new Robert Crown Center.
The aldermen’s demand for market-rate rent may have been the tipping point.
David Campbell of ESF told the RoundTable, “I don’t think we were far apart on very many topics except the issue of how much ‘rents’ we would pay. I am confident that we could have come to a compromise on the other issues. We continue to believe that this would not cost the City a cent. We agreed to pay $4,000 per month to cover storage. The storage consisted of boats, snow plows, but primarily it was the garbage and recycling cans. If we had to pay an incremental $4,000 or $5,000 per month plus the agreed upon storage costs as well as the build out costs and the costs to redo the parking lot, the economics failed to work. We would have had to charge increased fees. … This would not have allowed us to make the facility free to all kids.”
At the June meeting, Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, focused on the City’s return on investment. She said she saw no return on investment such as that expected with the City partnerships on Howard Street. She was referring to the City’s subsidizing two ventures on Howard Street: a theater and a wine bar with two affordable apartments (one rented by the owners of the wine bar). In each case the buildings are on a lease-to-own basis, but the City will recoup only its original cost for the buildings (approximately $700,000), not the build-out costs, which are estimated to total $900,000 or more.
The End of Present Negotiations
In a letter sent last week to Mr. Bobkiewicz and others, the board of directors of EBSA gave the City formal notice of the withdrawal of “its proposal to convert the now dormant Evanston Recycling Center into an indoor sports facility (the Project).”
The letter said the four organizations “envisioned a new model of collaboration between community-based organizations and the City. … The aim of the Project was to deliver much-needed resources to Evanston’s youth. Against a backdrop of budget constraints and dwindling public resources, we set forth a proposal to build an indoor sports facility that would come at no cost to the City of Evanston. … Our business plan was conservative, realistic and met our goal of ensuring that Evanston’s youth – no matter their economic means – would have full access to this resource at low or no cost. Nothing like this had ever been conceived in Evanston, which we believe embodies the true spirit of what it means to be an Evanstonian.”
The letter referred to the June meeting at which “it became apparent that certain members of the City Council did not view this project positively or from the same perspective as its sponsor organizations. Rather, the conversion of the recycling center by Evanston’s not-for-profit youth sports organizations was viewed like any other commercial development, which is unfortunate. Evanston’s not-for-profit youth sports organizations provide thousands of hours of programming that the City of Evanston cannot or will not undertake.”
The City’s request for further financial input is, the letter stated, “completely uneconomical” and a “dramatic change to the discussions that had been held over the previous 18 months.”
The ESF letter also held a threat of taking their proposition out of Evanston. “In short, we can go to surrounding communities for higher-grade space at less cost,” the letter said.
It is not clear what the next step will be. Mr. Bobkiewicz said he would not propose alternative uses for the recycling center until after the new year. Mr. Campbell said ESF would be willing to resume negotiations only if there was a shift among some Council member.
“If the City were to come back to us and in the true spirit of collaboration and work together to benefit the youth, then we are open. At this point, I think there are too many on the Council who are against the project and have too much misinformation that coming back together will be hard,” he said.