The City’s efforts to bring a theater to the 700 block of Howard Street continued to proceed in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back pattern begun with the inception of the idea several years ago. The theater concept took one of its steps forward at the Nov. 28 City Council meeting, as aldermen voted to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) “to continue pre-development activities for planning and design of a theatre in the existing building at 717-23 Howard Street,” according to the staff memo accompanying the agenda item.

The City’s partner this time will be Rogers Park’s Theo Ubique, a group the memo describes as: “Founded in 1997, Theo Ubique produces cabaret-style musical theater productions” such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Rent.” Currently, the group operates out of the No Exit Café on Glenwood Avenue, a space accommodating about 60 ticketholders. The group serves dinner before each production, and would partner with Evanston restaurants to cater Evanston performances if the project goes through.

Theo Ubique is the City’s third prospective theater group partner on Howard Street. Earlier efforts with City Lit Theater and Strawdog Theater groups fell through, in part because the cost of the new theater space proved daunting,

Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, was the only member of Council to vote against the proposal, expressing concern once more about the cost of the project. Financial arrangements contemplated by the proposed Memorandum of Understanding will require Theo Ubique to raise more than $200,000 in less than two years. Ald. Miller pointed out that, according to financial documents provided by Theo Ubique, the company has never raised more than $45,000 a year in its nearly 20-year history.

The proposed new theater building will be a scaled-down version of the design prepared for Strawdog; that would have been a $5.5 million endeavor. The Theo Ubique design and draft floor plan “calls for a consolidation of the two storefront spaces [at 717-23 Howard St.] to create an 86-seat cabaret theater with a bar area, catering kitchen, and 225 square feet of dressing room space for performers.” Buildout is expected to cost between $1.69 and $1.76 million, but the staff memo notes, “This estimate includes substantial contingencies and staff recommends funding the project at $1.6 million.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, whose Eighth Ward includes all the Evanston side of Howard Street, has long sought a storefront theater as a cultural anchor to attract people to the corridor. The theater would join the earlier, successful, City economic development restaurant efforts Peckish Pig and Ward 8. The City still owns the Peckish Pig building, but recently sold the Ward 8 building to the business owners.

Funding for the City’s portion of the theater project, $1.4 million, will come from the Howard/Ridge TIF. Currently, the TIF does not have sufficient funds, but the City’s agreement to pay property taxes for the 415 Howard apartment building gradually expires over the next five years. As 415 Howard begins to make property tax payments, “The ability to make debt payments on a 10-year bond issuance for $1.4 million will be possible,” according to the staff memo and City CFO Marty Lyons.

Should the project proceed past the MOU stage, staff expects “a timeline for completion of construction drawings and award of the construction contract … by October 9, 2017, with construction (if approved) to be completed in summer 2018.”