Construction on the Crown Center.                                 RoundTable photo

A group of residents, concerned about the hefty price of the new Robert Crown Community Center, pressed officials at a Feb. 13 meeting on how the City intends to pay off the 25-year bonds for the project. They also raised concerns the debt will fall on future taxpayers.

Members of “Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown Center” had called for the meeting, charging the cost of the project has skyrocketed since 2017 and that the City needs to take steps to take the burden off taxpayers.

“I’m all about having a community center — I’m all about parks,” said Mary Rosinski, one of the residents speaking at the nearly two-hour meeting held in the gymnasium of the current Robert Crown Center, 1701 Main St. “I’m all about services for libraries, schools. … I get it. We still don’t know…$30 to $50 to $54 million dollars –what the heck?”

Phase one of the project is already underway, with girders going up on the new building, located at 1701 Main St.

 The project is to include a new 130,000-square-foot building with two full-sized ice rinks; a 6,000-square-foot branch library, a gymnasium, and a preschool, as well as three outdoor artificial-turf athletic fields.

The residents group is trying to marshal support to stop a nearly $18 million bond sale for the project scheduled for May or June, maintaining the City Council must first find a more equitable way of distributing the debt.

 The group is also seeking a closer look at contingencies and soft costs associated with the project as well as an audit of donations and facility use agreements they say were negotiated without the authority of citizens.

Officials have currently set the cost of new center at $53.4 million. As recently as late summer 2016, officials were talking about a project in the $18 to $30 million range.

At the meeting, Donald Wilson, in whose Fourth Ward the community center is located, spoke of wide community support for a new building as playing a role in the higher priced building.

“To me when a community gets together and raises over $10 million, that says something,” he said. “It demonstrates a commitment at … a very deep level. [The new center] is not just for one or two people. It’s not just for rich people. Kids use this facility, adults use this facility. We’re going to have a running track. Not everybody can afford to join EAC (the Evanston Athletic Club) and use a fancy machine.”

Ald. Wilson noted that the bonds include a maintenance fund which will benefit future generations by setting aside money on an ongoing basis, (Officials have cited lack of preventive maintenance as a factor in the poor condition of the current building, built in 1974.)

Ald. Wilson said he is very familiar with the facility’s special niche in the community through his own family’s own use of the building. 

His children have participated in the center’s soccer and figure skating programs. “I live in the neighborhood.  I come to the flea market. Long before I was an alderman I used to come to the ice show and see water pouring through the roof,” he said.

“To me, building a strong community is what Evanston is about. Friends are made here, dreams are made here – at least one multi-Gold Medal winning Olympian [Shani Davis] started his career here. And the idea behind this is to expand what everybody needs.”

During the question-and-answer period of the meeting, though, speakers focused on the cost – including some who were not members of the Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown Center, but were worried about the effect of future taxes.

 Leslie McMillan, an Evanston resident, asked the alderman why a referendum on the project did not go out to voters. Ms. McMillan said she has spent 30 years in finance, working on public and private financing, and did not understand how the project could go forward without an identifiable funding plan.

“You can only sell the library building so many times,” she said, referring to an item now in front of the City Council to sell a library parking lot to developer for $4 million to put up an office building.

 “We had such trouble balancing our budget,” she noted. “At three-and-a-half, four million dollars a year [to pay off the bonds], where is that coming from?”

Ald. Wilson said officials did not choose to go with a referendum but gave the public plenty of opportunity to comment on the project as it moved along.

. “We had 30 meetings in the past few years. We had many meetings before that. This was talked about extensively,” he said.

“The number is what it is,” he said. “It’s a big number, and it went up, and that’s all I can say. It’s not a secret; nobody hid it from anyone. It grew, and I think that’s what the community as a whole supported.”

The City borrowed $25 million in 2018 and is borrowing another $16 million this year to go toward the project. “That’s it – no more borrowing,” said Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie, going over the financing at the meeting.

The City then makes annual payments to pay off the bond, with the heaviest, more than $3 million, including interest, beginning in year 2025.

 Total debt for the project is more than $70 million, according to the information posted on the City’s web site, with $10 million picked up by the donations from Friends of the Robert Crown Center, and roughly $60 million projected to come from City sources.

Members of Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown Center, in an information sheet distributed at the meeting, maintain that taxpayer debt has increased 500%.  “The City has committed to bond sales of $42 million so far; with interest this is a debt of $71 million over 25 years. If the City commits to all $50 million the debt with interest will far exceed $80 million.”

At the meeting, several speakers urged Ald. Wilson and City officials to negotiate with private users to secure fair investments in the construction costs.

Northwestern University and Beacon Academy have expressed interest in using the ice rink and gymnasium, and have contributed $1 million and $500,000 respectively toward the new building’s capital fund. In exchange, the University and the school are expected to receive a share of facility usage, ice time and other activities at the center.

Some speakers at the meeting suggested that Northwestern University’s interest stemmed from the University’s eventually wishing to field a Big Ten hockey team.

 “If Northwestern had to build their own ice hockey rink, like some other universities around here had to do, it would cost them a lot more money than a million dollars,” maintained resident Lenny Lamkin.

He urged Ald. Wilson to negotiate with the University “to put up a few more bucks, so I as a taxpayer don’t have to.”

Northwestern and private users will pay for use of the ice rink, “so they’re a customer like anybody else,” pointed out Ald. Wilson.

Daniel Stein, the former president of the City’s Recreation Board, noted that hockey is a club sport at the University. “Often these organizations rent ice from Robert Crown. They have for years,” he said.

Diane Thodos, toting a sign that read “No Taxation without Representation,”  throughout much of the meeting, charged that “there’s a profound disconnect, that’s deliberate in fact, between the privatized interests that want essentially the public to be paying for their project, [and] that give token donations, token interest.’’

In the case of tax-exempt Northwestern, “I get mighty suspicious when I find a penurious amount of money given to this kind of project,” she said

 Another speaker, Ray Friedman, raised a very important point, she said, “This language tonight, all the sentiment about the ice-skating rink,” and other features is “leaving out a big portion of your fiduciary responsibility to your community,” she told City officials.

“I’m talking about the Poor Peoples Campaign here,” she said, referring to longtime residents “who are going to have to leave Evanston because their tax bills get too high.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.