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Next Theatre has made the City-owned Noyes Cultural Arts Center (NCAC) at 927 Noyes St. its home for more than 30 years, but its 2014-15 season could be the company’s last in Evanston. Next has incurred over $76,000 in debt, which has prompted the City to propose a plan for Next to pay what it owes and likely find a new space by May 2015, when its lease at NCAC expires.
At the July 7 Human Services Committee meeting, City officials presented a proposal for Next to pay its debt. The proposal, which City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz called a “two-pronged approach,” was approved at the July 14 City Council meeting.
Under the first part, a lease that will keep Next in the NCAC until May 31, 2015, was renewed. Next had already announced the schedule for its upcoming season, and without Next performances, the NCAC theater’s usage would have decreased significantly, and the City needs that space to be used. Next’s future would also be jeopardized if it were prevented from performing its scheduled season.
“It is prudent to have [Next] there, because if they are not there this upcoming year, the theater would be dark,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz.
“We are trying to be respectful of Next, an organization that has [spent] 30 years here,” said Joe McRae, director of parks, recreation and community services. “Out of respect for Next, we would give them the opportunity to go forward with the season that they planned, but still go forward trying to make sure that the City and Next meet the obligations that need to be met.”
Part two of the plan is the debt collection. City officials have drafted a promissory note detailing a repayment plan. The note says that starting on June 1, 2015, Next will repay its debt on a five-year term with monthly payments of $1,338.16, with 2 percent interest.
Despite the plan to have Next leave the NCAC, City officials said they think highly of Next and its contributions and do not want it to have to leave. If Next can pay its debt before the lease expires, then the City would consider keeping Next in the NCAC after May 2015.
“Next has seen the growth of national actors and playwrights, and it has been huge for the community,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “[It] has brought people from all over Chicago [to Evanston] to shop and dine. I hope something changes. If the debt can be paid immediately, I would be the first to bring that up.”
Alderman Jane Grover, a Human Services Committee member, said she has enjoyed Next’s presence in Evanston and said that it has been an “economic engine” for the community, although she said she supports the proposal.
The sentiment among City officials, however, is that Next will not be able to pay its debt, which would lead the City to look for other tenants. Mr. McRae said that the City has not begun searching for new tenants, and he does not know when the process will start.
“As of right now, we have not been able to get an agreement that would allow for obligations to be met, so that’s why we are pursuing the course of action that we are now,” Mr. McRae said. “If they’re not able to meet the obligation, certainly at some point in time we would start to think about who[m] that space would go to and who could utilize it appropriately.”
Mr. McRae also said the NCAC’s theater needs to be occupied to be fair to Evanston’s taxpayers.
“It is important for staff to manage that [space] appropriately, be respectful of [current tenants] and be respectful of the obligation it takes to be there,” Mr. McRae said. “Part of that obligation is paying for the space that [tenants] utilize, and the community and Council expect us to manage that appropriately. We have a great deal of respect for Next Theatre and what they’ve done over the last 30-plus years, and this is an effort to deal with the obligation of rent.”
The City’s plan for Next has drawn mixed views from Evanston residents. At the July 7 meeting, Junad Rizki voiced his displeasure that Next’s payment issues are only now being revealed to the public.
“This is money we taxpayers are owed, and never collected,” he said. “Why did the City sign a lease when there hadn’t been payment of rent? Plain and simple, we have bad debt here, and now we’re going to sign a contract…to continue this? This is poor fiscal management.”
Gerald Adler was also at the July 7 meeting, and he said he wants to see Next stay in Evanston.
“If we can support the amateur actors and politicians who are not as effective in many ways, let’s support the real [actors].”
New leases for other tenants of the NCAC, including Actor’s Gymnasium, Art Encounter, and Piven Theatre, were approved at the July 14 City Council meeting. The Actor’s Gym lease is for 8½ years, while Art Encounter’s runs through 2016.
Piven’s lease lasts until Dec. 31, and its future in the NCAC is not resolved. Piven is looking to add space, and Alderman Mark Tendam says it wants to occupy 60 percent of the NCAC space, a figure he says is not reasonable. He said he thinks Piven will stay in Evanston, possibly at a proposed downtown performing arts center.
The Noyes Tenants Association has regulations for the amount of space tenants can occupy, and the City complies with those regulations and does not look to go outside those parameters. Mr. McRae said the City has not thought about other possibilities with Piven, nor has Piven contacted the City to ask about more space.
“They are happy to renew for the space they have now,” he said.