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At City Council’s June 26 meeting, the Harley Clarke saga appeared to revert back to 2013 at City Council’s June 26 meeting, as Council voted, 7-2, to issue Request for Proposals (RFP) from third parties for the lease, use, and upkeep of the mansion. The vote rejected the recommendation of the Harley Clarke Planning Committee to lease the Mansion to Evanston Lake and Gardens (EL&G), a not-for-profit organization.

As has become the pattern when Harley Clarke matters appear before Council, supporters packed Council chambers and dozens signed up to speak. Nearly all supported the EL&G proposal, demanding the mansion remain for public use.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, whose 7th Ward includes the Lighthouse beach complex of which the mansion is a part, led the Harley Clarke Planning Committee. The committee was formed late last year and met five times since November to study and craft its recommendation. Ald. Revelle made a motion to enter into a long-term lease with EL&G and keep $250,000 of City funds already earmarked for mansion improvements. Council voted late last year to devote those funds to mansion repairs.

Ald. Revelle’s motion followed a lengthy and emotional presentation by EL&G representative Tom Hodgman promising “a year round venue” at the Mansion that would “connect people to the lake.” EL&G promised to create “an experiential environmental education space” tied to the dunes, the gardens, and the lakefront right out the back door. “Instead of no child left behind, we’d like to see no child left inside,” he said.

Mr. Hodgman’s presentation identified $1.1 million as the starting point with an overall expected budget of about $5 million. He said his group had raised just over $100,000 to date, but added, “If the City commits to this, people will donate more.”

 Mr. Hodgman concluded by saying, “In the end, it comes down to love. I love this place.”

Council was not swayed. “It’s a special place to me” as well, said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “But I represent the whole City.” The resolution passed by Council last September expected the building to be owned and operated by the City itself, not a third party, he said. The resolution specifically found the process for seeking a third-party owner had ended.

The Harley Clarke Planning Committee “does not have the authority to undo the vote of City Council,” Ald. Wilson said. By coming up with a proposal for something other than City ownership and operation, the Committee overstepped. “So the only way to proceed in my mind would be to issue an RFP in line with what Ald. Revelle has presented,” he said.

“There are people in the community in desperate need of services – yesterday – that won’t get them tomorrow,” said. Ald. Wilson. The State crisis in funding has to be a Council priority now, he said, and Council has “to follow the rules.”

Ald. Wilson then moved to amend Ald. Revelle’s motion, a friendly amendment that Ald. Revelle declined. He then shifted his motion to be a “substitute motion,” under which the City would ask organizations for proposals on how they would operate the building for public uses. This essentially replaced his motion for Ald. Revelle’s. 

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, agreed. “I met with Tom [Hodgeman] and Alex Block,” a former third ward aldermanic candidate and a board member of EL&G, “and I was really impressed with their commitment and enthusiasm,” she said. She went to the mansion and Lighthouse Beach for the first time ever – despite having grown up in Evanston – she said.

“I represent a population of residents who never had that experience,” she said. “The City spent [more than] $350,000 on two one-room fog houses that have copper roofs. That happened when Fleetwood-Jourdain has gone unrepaired.” [Council recently approved a contract for Fleetwood HVAC improvements called “critical” by City staff in 2013, yet delayed until this year. Restroom improvements have also been approved this year.]

“I can’t support any more funding going to Harley Clarke,” said Ald. Rue Simmons. She also called for “more thoughtful board participation” at EL&G “to serve a broader population… I do believe your heart is in it,” but the Board and proposal “is not the most thoughtful and inclusive…” She mentioned Shorefront Legacy and the Dajae Coleman Foundation as possible mansion tenants who should have been considered.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said her concern was “transparency.” She wanted to make sure other not-for-profits knew of the opportunity to make proposals to use the Mansion.

Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, joined Ald. Revelle in voting against the substitute motion. The remaining seven aldermen all voted to issue the RFP.

Given the parameters set by the Harley Clarke Planning Committee – public use by a not-for-profit likely in partnership with the City, a long-term lease and not ownership – Council expected the RFP to be generated in short order. Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, attempted to further limit the RFP to “educational purposes,” but Ald. Wilson declined her friendly amendment so as to avoid overly limiting possible responses.

The RFP will be prepared by City staff for Council approval on July 10. Once issued, responses – including a response from EL&G – are expected within a few months. Then the debate will re-engage. Perhaps before the end of 2017 the Harley Clarke saga – begun in 1963 when the City acquired the property but reaching perceived crisis level in July 2011 – will be at least temporarily concluded.