By now most residents who have driven past the corner of Main Street and Dodge Avenue have noticed the construction fence, the steel girders and the cranes. Something is going up.
The new Robert Crown Center will have two ice rinks, a gymnasium, an indoor running track, expanded locker rooms, a common gathering area, multipurpose rooms, a reading garden and a library and technology center. Everything will be new; everything will be state-of-the-art.
With a project of this magnitude and in a town of 75,000 thoughtful residents, there are bound to some things that some people just do not like. After more than two decades of bemoaning the poor condition of and lack of proper maintenance to the present Robert Crown Center, though, and with a price tag of $53 million, one would have hoped the community would be pulling for this project to succeed.
That is not the case. The rumblings of protest that began more than two years ago have swelled into sharp and specific criticisms. Some of these are valid, and many are curable. The project will not stop because of residents’ complaints and concerns, but complaints and concerns will not stop if residents feel they are not heard in a meaningful manner.
Tensions are high here, and passions are running deep. This makes for anger and divisiveness, things that can pull a community down.
It is time for City Council, City officials and concerned residents to figure out what they can live with.
People are wondering for whom this new center is really being built. They also wonder how the cost mushroomed from about $10 million to $30 million to $53 million. They are also wondering how the cost will be covered.
Concerns about who will benefit most from the new Crown Center arise in part from letters of intent crafted for the City by the not-for-profit group Friends of Robert Crown Center. Those letters reportedly trade certain benefits for monetary pledges. Rumors run high – that a private school has naming rights and first privileges for the gymnasium; that private hockey teams, including Northwestern University’s, will usurp ice time from other hockey groups; and that Evanston residents will be priced out of activities in a community center that is supposed to serve the community first and foremost.
Although the City told the RoundTable and others that letters of intent outlining the proposed donations and trade-offs would be made public at a City Council meeting in January, that has not been done. Making them public at one City Council meeting and voting on them at a subsequent meeting would squelch – or verify – those rumors and give the public time to think about and weigh in on them. Council can ratify them, or not, in public. Residents will be able to see what, if anything, may have been promised and what will be received in exchange, and that is the best we can ask for on this issue.
The cost of this project is daunting. Council had to increase its debt limit to issue bonds to cover the cost of the building. The debt service on those bonds will follow us for decades. Even if Friends of Robert Crown Center offers to cover more of the debt service – as they did with the current budget – with part of the funds it has raised already, that money is not new or found; it is simply a reallocation of known or pledged funds.
In the budget for this year, the City raised fees, increased fines and cut services. Now it plans to sell some of its assets – parking lots it says are under-used. For a land- and lake-locked town to sell its property, we think, is short-sighted. The City should keep these lots public and sell only the air rights. Increasing the parking fees is brutal enough for the businesses here who wish to keep their patrons and entice more. Selling parking lots to private developers forecloses the public from needed parking and shortchanges local businesses.
We understand the Crown project, now underway, will continue. Council members patently did not have a plan to address the costs when they unanimously approved this project. It is late in the game, but there is still time to craft a plan. But first, let residents know if this is going to be their Crown Center, and what, if anything, has been bargained away.
If it is in fact to be a community center, let the community weigh in on ways to pay for it.