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The Harley Clarke debate took a step forward on Nov.13, as City Council voted to direct staff to prepare a 40-year lease for the Evanston Lakehouse and Garden (ELHG) group. Under the lease, the mansion would be used for environmental, arts, and other programming. The matter is far from settled, however – the lease would include a three-year trial period requiring the group to reach certain fundraising benchmark targets, and failure to meet the targets could result in the City looking for other options.

The lease will be prepared and presented to Council in time for Council’s Jan. 22, 2018 meeting.

As has been the case for the last several years, when Harley Clarke appears on a City Council agenda, people descend upon Council chambers. Combined with the Nevins-Moon building, another controversial matter, the result was a citizen comment list bulging to a modern record: 82 signed up to speak. Most spoke in favor of ELHG, but not all. Several pointed out the financial challenges obvious in a plan calling for more than $5 million in fundraising by an organization that has less than $5,000 in the bank.

Council seemed to recognize the challenge as well, but under the previouslyd upon in prior meetings determined they must give ELHG the opportunity to realize its dream. “We’ve made a commitment to this process and we do have to give [ELHG] a chance,” said Ald. Don Wilson, 4th Ward.

Council signaled a desire to keep their hands on some rather tight reins as the process unfolds. “We need clearly identifiable benchmarks along the way,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “I am willing to go along with this as long as there are firm benchmarks.”

In introducing the proposed lease, Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, who chaired a subcommittee that proposed the long-term lease concept to Council earlier in the year, described in general terms the consequences of failing to meet benchmark targets. “If they don’t meet targets, the City may consider other uses for the property,” she said. Other uses could include demolition of the buildings, returning the lakefront to a natural state.

“I encourage others to continue to share ideas,” said Ald. Wilson. According to the staff memo, Evanston Artists for Humanity submitted a proposal but staff rejected it because the group did not attend one of two mandatory meetings as a part of the application process. Others have proposed alternative plans, such as demolition.

The terms of the lease, and the fundraising benchmarks, are far from certain at this point. “Our challenge over the next several weeks is to come up with these terms,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. He said Mayor Stephen Hagerty has expressed concerns about the fundraising capacity of ELHG.

The 00-page ELHG proposal, complete with 11 appendices, describes a community center with “programming… at the heart of the Evanston Lakehouse experience.” Several partners have already signed up, including School District 65 teachers, LakeDance, and LumenKids. Art installations would hearken back to the Evanston Art Center days.

Rent would be just $1 per month – another nod to the EAC agreement. But ELHG would be injecting at least $5 million into the buildings and grounds for capital improvements. The proposal equates the capital expenditure as roughly equivalent to fair market rent of about $370,000 per year when spread out over the 40-year term.

The proposal also includes a $250,000 contribution from the City, a reference to a proposal made by Ald. Wilson late last year to spend that amount toward emergency repairs designed to maintain the building at status quo level while Council figured out what to do with the property. Any contribution from the City, in today’s budget crunch, would be a challenge.

“Whose jobs are going down if we put the $250,000 in [the 2018] budget?” asked Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. “People are here pleading for jobs they’ve already lost,” she said, referring to two police victim advocates who spoke at citizen comment protesting a budget proposal shifting the victim advocate functions out of the Police Department and to the Health Department – a move that will result in the loss of at least one job.

There was no appetite at Council to devote any money to the ELHG dream. “We are not allocating any money for fundraising,” said Ald. Wilson. His $250,000 proposal was only “to keep the property from falling apart.”

The lease, with its benchmarks, requirements, and other terms, will return for the Jan. 22 meeting, for Council vote.