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A downtown Evanston performing arts center, long under discussion and the subject of several professional studies in recent years, returned as a real possibility Monday night, July 29. The proposal came with a surprise new champion – the Second Baptist Church. Representatives from the church spoke in favor of one of the proposed sites, on Benson Avenue and Clark Street, about 100 yards north of the church.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl formed the Downtown Performing Arts Center task force in the midst of the Piven Theater/Noyes Center controversy early last year. The thought at the time was twofold: The City needed a vibrant new theater, but the Noyes Center was probably not the best place for it, because of its current use as a home for numerous artists and because it is not in the City’s downtown core.
Prior studies presented striking possibilities in the past, but in each case left the financing issue to the side. The latest study did not.
The Committee presented a plan for financing the proposed new center through a public-private partnership. Under the proposal, the City or other government sources would be responsible for $7.5 million of the $37 million total price tag. More than $14 million would come from capital fundraising – the same source the City hopes to use to fund a new Robert Crown Center. Another $10 million would come from contributions from an “anchor tenant,” an established theater group with donors, a balance sheet, or other sources sufficient to fund $10 million of construction costs. The remainder, about $5 million, would come from a bank loan.
The group’s Powerpoint presentation included examples of new performing arts centers in the Chicagoland area, as well as a rendering of a possible Evanston Performing Arts Center design provided by the architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill.
Enter Second Baptist Church. The Skidmore drawing situated the new Center at the Benson/Clark corner and possibly stretched far enough south to include the Second Baptist Church location on the alley at 1717 Benson Ave. Zeb McLaurin of McLaurin Development Partners, a firm that its website says specializes in relocation and site selection among other services, spoke on behalf of the church during Citizen Comment. He urged Council to select the Benson/Clark location. “We look forward to continue to work with you and the City,” he said.
According to public records, the 1729 Benson building is owned by Evanston Benson LLC, a company whose members include at least one of the former principals of the Evanston Athletic Club (1723 Benson Ave.). County records do not show a current owner of the Clark Street addresses, 814-6 Clark St., other than to tie those addressed to 1729 Benson Ave.
According to the Committee’s presentation, three possible sites held the greatest potential, “one with developer interest.” Based on the Second Baptist involvement, the Benson/Clark location likely fit that description.
The other two – the Library parking lot behind the Evanston Women’s Club and the empty lot on Davis Street just west of Chicago avenue – were both considered in the earlier studies.
The Committee envisions an arts center with three separate stages of differing sizes housing at least one large anchor tenant. The building would be a place to be “entertained and inspired,” said Judy Kemp, a member of the Committee, with performances of all types – theater, dance, music, and other – available near ample parking and public transportation. Performances drawing hundreds if not thousands of patrons every week would add to the economic activity downtown, she added.
James Corirossi, also a member of the Committee, said that an entertainment tax on ticket sales could help pay for any government contribution to the project. Committee member Allyson Brown-Leber presented a prospective annual budget of $855,000 – enough to cover all expenses and debt service.
Council took no action on the report other than to accept it, thank the committee, and place it on file. The new Arts Center looks much closer to reality now that it ever has in the past, though, with real numbers, a real possible location, and a dedicated team of advocates including possible property owners behind the concept. Residents can expect further developments this fall.