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The proposed $37 million downtown performing arts center took a major step forward on Oct. 19, gaining a potential anchor tenant and a surprise potential restaurant on the same night. Northlight Theater, founded and located in Evanston until relocating to Skokie in 1997, appeared before Council to “confirm interest in the downtown performing arts center as our new home.”
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that of the sites recommended by the Downtown Performing Arts Task Force, “one site has seemed to be the most promising,” the site located at the corner of Benson Avenue and Clark Streets, now housing Papa John’s and the Stained Glass restaurants, among other businesses. Architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill have created preliminary drawings and plans for that site.
In July 2015, the Benson-Clark site gained a champion in the Second Baptist Church, which has a property interest in the site. On Oct. 19, the site gained another champion.
Jason Ballard, owner of the Stained Glass and sister restaurant The Cellar, addressed City Council during public comment. His restaurant had just signed a ten- year lease for the site, he said, and obviously he plans to remain open. But upon reflection, he added, he “realized this is an amazing opportunity.”
Mr. Ballard said that for 20 years he has been performing with the Lyric Opera, and continues to sing there, though he is taking a year off to focus on the restaurants. He said a vibrant performing arts center would be great for the City of Evanston, bringing in performers and patrons from all over.
“I want to express my interest in this project,” he said. The Stained Glass would like to be in the center, he added. “Any decent performing arts center needs a restaurant,” he said.
Tim Evans, the executive director of Northlight, appearing with artistic director BJ Jones, confirmed his organization’s interest in moving home to Evanston. The group has 6,000 annual subscribers, he said, and about 60,000 annual visitors.
He said moving back to Evanston would be a return to the company’s roots, offering access to public transit, pre- and post-show dining options, a small as well as main stage, and access to young patrons.
“Our goal is to fund construction of the main stage ourselves with foundation support, corporate support and private contributions,” said Mr. Evans. “We want to provide a central hub for the cultural life of Evanston … and Northlight would be very proud to be a part of Evanston’s future.”
Mr. Evans admitted that Evanston is just one of several sites Northlight is considering, however, including the possibility that they will remain in Skokie. Mr. Bobkiewicz added that there are no numbers now and the project remains in the preliminary working stages.