Proposed site of the new Strawdog Theater RoundTable photo

City Council voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with Strawdog Theater Company for the development of a new theater on the 700 block of Howard Street. The move is the latest step in a years-long effort to bring a new live theater, and anchor tenant theater company, to help revitalize the Howard Street corridor.

Efforts to increase economic activity on Howard Street have been underway for years, with the Peckish Pig restaurant and Ward 8 cocktail lounge as examples of City-owned buildings that have been converted to successful businesses in the past several years.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, has spearheaded the Howard Street efforts. All along, a theater on Howard between Ridge and Chicago avenues has been an integral part of her vision for a driving economic activity in south Evanston.

With that in mind, the City issued a request for qualifications seeking “theater companies interested in relocating to Evanston’s Howard Street” that “have the capacity to undertake a capital campaign to help finance the relocation and build-out of theater space,” according to the staff memo in the Council packet.

The City selected Strawdog, a well-established theater company now its 28th season, according to its website. Ald. Rainey said Strawdog seeks new space because its current location, near Broadway and Sheridan in Chicago, is being demolished to make way for major redevelopment.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Strawdog and the City does not yet require the City to spend any money. Rather, it essentially sets forth a timeline, with a deadline of Aug. 1, 2016, for the parties to agree to financial terms. The City expects to send the theater construction project out for bid by March 1, 2016. During construction, the City will “work with Strawdog to identify suitable space in a City facility to accommodate Strawdog’s theatrical performance needs for the 2016-2017 season,” according to the MOU.

At the Nov. 9 City Council meeting, Ald. Rainey urged aldermen to support the memorandum of understanding. “All we’re asking for tonight is the authority to being this effort,” she said. The financial aspects, including the City’s share of capital costs and Strawdog’s capital contribution to the new theater space, have yet to be determined, she said.

“If you’re going to vote against [this project], could you please wait until there’s something substantial to vote against,” Ald. Rainey suggested.

Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, who in the past has criticized the project as too expensive, agreed to support the MOU. “I won’t vote against it because you asked,” he said to Ald. Rainey. When it came time for a voice vote, “Alderman Rainey – aye,” he said.

Previously, Council voted to spend up to $40,000 on architectural plans. The next step will be a bid on the construction project, plus an agreement as to how to share those costs. Construction would begin in late summer 2016 at the earliest, with a possible open date as early as 2017.

There are many additional hurdles to clear between now and then, however.