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The State of Illinois’ pursuit of the Harley Clarke mansion for use by the Coastal Management Program of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a teaching center and for office space took another step forward at the Sept. 22 City Council meeting, as aldermen voted to enter into negotiations on a contract to sell, not lease, the buildings to the State.

Two steps remain – a super majority vote (two-thirds of all elected aldermen) on any negotiated contract and a formal publication of the notice of the sale.

Numerous Evanston residents spoke to the issue, nearly all demanding that any sale include a right of reversion forcing the return of the property to Evanston should the IDNR ever decide to leave it. The property must “always remain in the public hands for public use,” said Barbara Janes.

City Council was not willing to add such restrictions at this stage of the negotiation process. “I understand the points, the thoughts, the ideas,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. But “in a sense, we’re negotiating with ourselves, because we don’t have an offer on the table … If we try to write the whole deal now, we’re writing in a vacuum.”

“I’m not interested in hamstringing ourselves,” said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, calling instead for flexibility. “I am acutely aware of [the insistence upon] long term ownership, retaining ownership in perpetuity,” she said, but the process requires “some flexibility in making this work for the residents of Evanston.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, added, “The community’s interest has been made clear. [Now] let’s see what comes in.”

The ordinance authorizing contract negotiations passed 7-1, with only Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, voting no. She did not explain her “no” vote.

The supermajority vote during this phase in no way predicts the outcome should a contract result. At least two aldermen expressed reservations with the plan.

“I still wonder if the state of Illinois should be spending $8 million to renovate a mansion on the lake,” said Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, given the state’s precarious financial condition. He also questioned the sources of funding for the state project.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “Part of the problem for me at least is from the beginning I supported a lease of the building. City Manager, I’d like you to ask why a lease is not possible.

There is no timetable for negotiations. Time will tell what, if any, contract results.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that the sale price would be the chief determinant as to conditions or restrictions placed upon the deed.

“If we get fair market” value for the property, then “it’s not reasonable to insist upon reversion,” Mr. Bobkiewicz  said.  If the property sells for “less than market [value], then it’s entirely appropriate” to insist upon a right to reclaim the property should the IDNR vacate, he added.