Mayor Stephen Hagerty spent much of his annual Town Hall Meeting on Feb. 20, responding to questions about issues surrounding two City-owned buildings – the Harley Clarke Mansion on the lake and the new Robert Crown Community Center, now going up at Main Street and Dodge Avenue.

In a full two-hour session at the City’s Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd., the Mayor touched  on other issues – including downtown development, greater beach access for Evanston residents and the lawsuit over possible water contamination at James Park.

Mayor Hagerty acknowledged to his audience of some 30 people, a number of them active in the Harley Clarke as well as the Robert Crown issues, that he shared some of their concerns about taking on the debt at the Robert Crown Center with no identifiable funding source.

The new center, nearly twice the size of the current building, is to include two NHL-style ice rinks, an indoor running track, branch library and other special features. It is expected to generate revenue once running, though not sufficient alone to pay the debt payments on the $53.4 million project.

Discussing the concern, Mayor Hagerty told audience members, “If you’re sitting there and saying, ‘Mayor, this seems backward to me: How could you fund a project before you knew what the funding source was going to be?’

“It’s a fair point,” said the Mayor, who runs his own consulting business. “It’s something that I raised and a couple of other people raised. We had this discussion:  If you’re a business and you’re about to spend a bunch of money on a capital [project] you’d better first figure out, ‘How am I going to pay for this?”’

On the other hand, “I don’t want people to think [the loan] is not going to get paid back. It’s going to get paid back, because it’s in our budget,” he said. If necessary, the City would either cut expenses or increase taxes and fees to meet their commitment, he said.

He said he thought that would not be the case, though. Last year, the City “was able to absorb the million dollars we spent for debt service on Crown, which resulted in a 2% increase in the City’s property tax,” he pointed out. That is “consistent with what it historically has been,” he said.

Since the Feb. 13 meeting they pushed for on the issue, the group Evanstonians For A Financially Responsible Robert Crown Plan has sent an open letter to City Council members urging them to provide convincing answers to questions raised about the project.

“We are troubled by what was once promoted as a necessary replacement at a reasonable cost to Evanston taxpayers now has become a much larger project with significantly increased costs to taxpayers and Evanston citizens,” the group said.

Group members raised a number of questions about the project in the letter, including what commitments are included in the City’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Friends of the Robert Crown Center, the group raising money for the project.

The concern, said group member Michael Vasilko at the Town Hall meeting, is, “What are we giving to those people that are donating money – like Northwestern and Beacon Academy. It seems like they are paying a small price for big access.”

 The Mayor agreed on the need to make those documents open.

 “Those agreements absolutely need to see the light of day,” he said. He said that the agreements are currently being reviewed by Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie and will eventually go to the City Council, “and those agreements will be out there,” he said. “But remember, we really need the private-public partnerships here,” he said of the philanthropy’s importance to the project.

He said he did not share the “No Taxation without Representation” viewpoint expressed by some residents at the Feb. 13 meeting, with some wondering why no referendum was held on such an expensive project.

But the mayor did not subscribe to the “No Taxation without Representation” viewpoint expressed by some residents at the Feb. 13 Robert Crown  meeting, with some speakers there questioning why a referendum wasn’t held on whether  to do such a large project.

“I’ll just remind people that there is representation,” he said, referring to the residents elected representatives. “Those people have a job and that job is to vote on revenue and to vote on expenses. That’s what they do and every four years if they want to run for office again, you get to decide whether you want to vote for them or not.”

The citizens group argued the project jumped in cost from $30 million as recently as 2017 to $53.4 million, largely away from public notice. In response, supporters of the project point to some 30 community meetings since the discussion of a new center began.

Residents have expressed concern that there was not a definable point where the increase was set out. Resident Misty Witenberg suggested to Mayor Hagerty that the process “strikes me as a little opaque.”

 Mary Rosinski, another resident at the meeting, offered, “I shouldn’t have to go to 30 meetings to have someone say, when they’re asked a question, ‘How did we get from this to that?’”

The Mayor suggested those with concerns could submit Freedom of Information requests to see all the agendas where Robert Crown has been discussed.  “My point is Robert Crown has been discussed,” he said.

The Mayor covered a number of other issues at the meeting, calling on people throughout the room and giving them plenty of time to ask questions and make follow up comments.

Harley Clarke: “My personal opinion is that we don’t lack ideas of what to do with Harley Clarke. We lack money,” he said. “It comes down to having the finances to actually execute an idea,” he said.

Mayor Hagerty, who headed a special committee on the issue before his election as mayor, said he still believes that the “most viable way to save the mansion, which I personally would like to do, is to allow private investment.”

He suggested an extended proposal process, stretching from 12 to 18 months, allowing public-private interests to get their finances together to undertake a project.

Also, up to now, the City has done “a disservice to itself,” he said. Interested parties in the shuttered building “can only go to the mansion to evaluate for six hours for one sitting. I don’t think process-wise that is wise.”

Downtown plan: “There are a lot of communities around the country like us, and we take it project-to-project,” he noted. A plan would take a longer range look on “how you want things to develop.”

On the other hand, “you can’t argue that a lot of thought has gone into these projects,” the Mayor said, pointing to a half billion dollars in investments in Evanston’s downtown.

“When “I go to the [United States] Conference of Mayors and meet with mayors around the country, that’s something they would die for,” he said.

Ownership of  the “Northwestern Beach,” or Lincoln Street Beach: “The whole agreement, whose beach it is, personally I don’t think it benefits any of us,” Mr. Hagerty said. He said he is more interested in creating greater beach access, as the City has done elsewhere, for residents – even looking at token-free beach access, and “see what that looks like.”

For several months, residents have urged City officials to acknowledge City ownership of the beach, and the officials have been reluctant to do so. The beach was created by sand accretion because of construction by the Northwestern University. Under the public trust doctrine, the beach would belong to the City of Evanston, though Northwestern still maintains ownership. Reportedly there is talk that the beach has an even wider pool of owners – the people of the State of Illinois. 

The beach was closed for two years for the construction of the athletic complex that stretches along the north side of the University’s lakefill. When the beach was reopened, it was called “Lincoln Street Beach,” and the City touted it as one of its six public beaches.

James Park litigation: The City of Evanston has been in a lawsuit with Com Ed and Nicor over this issue, he said, responding to a question. “Now there are many communities that would say, ‘We’ve got this problem, too, but we’re not going to touch this, because these are billion-dollar companies, and we are just not going to fight.’ In Evanston, there was a decision made, ‘No, we are going to fight it. We are not worried about the water right now, but in the future seeping into the system.’”

He said the citizen who asked about the issue was right, in quoting legal fees running $6 million right now for the City.

“Six million is a lot of money. I get it; every member of the Evanston Council gets it,” he said.

He said that, while at the end of the day, officials are not sure how the decision will go, “we thought as a City it’s important enough we challenge this and that’s what we’re going through right now.”

On Jan. 23, the Federal Judge hearing the James Park litigation heard oral arguments on the City’s motion for a preliminary injunction pending trial of the case. The Judge did not rule on the motion, but took it under advisement, meaning he would rule at a later date. The Judge ordered the parties to file a joint statement listing any additional discovery (e.g., document requests or depositions) they needed to take before proceeding to a trial of the case. So far, no trial date has been set. The Judge set the case for status on March 12.

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.