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Evanston officials put together a video last week in an effort to answer some of the questions community members have raised about the Robert Crown Community Center project.

But the film was barely off the ground before protests arose from the 15 to 20 residents who had gathered in Council Chambers of the Civic Center May 20 for a discussion.

“We’d like to ask our questions ourselves and have a meaningful conversation,” said Clare Kelly, one of the residents. “They won’t let us ask our questions.”

Ray Friedman, a Second Ward resident, said it was his understanding after citizens brought the need for a community discussion to Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite that  City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz had agreed to have the discussion.

“This was 90 minutes; this was an hour and a half,” he said of the video to Mr. Bobkiewicz  after the meeting. “I mean, you could have posted this for all of us to see at home.”

 Mr. Bobkiewicz said officials chose to lead off with the video because “we wanted to make sure we got the information out. So we figured [with] an hour of public dialogue [later in the meeting], the pre-recorded segments made sense.”

Ald. Braithwaite said he began arranging the meeting after a handful of people raised questions about the Robert Crown project at a City Council meeting two months ago. He said a number of questions about the process had come to the aldermen by email as well by phone.

He said the May 20 meeting was for the benefit of new people as well as new aldermen. He saw the video as an attempt to put the information in some sequential order, allowing people to review it at their own pace.

“This is just one of many City meetings,” he told residents.

Members of  the  Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown, the citizens group that is concerned with the project’s cost, are continuing to press for answers even after seeing the video.

  The group said in a statement on May 28 that it will continue “to insist that the public burdens on this project be drastically reduced. Let’s be clear – the majority of the cost  of this project is for the second ice rink, Olympic and NHL-sized, which serve an extremely limited number of Evanston residents.”

The group has been asking the City to share the letters of intent negotiated with private entities that will be using the public facility, located at the intersection of Main Street and Dodge Avenue – adjacent to the present Crown Center, which the City says will be demolished when the new one is completed.

In addition, the group has called for full financial  disclosures around the project, maintaining that an independent forensic accounting of the City and Friends of Robert Crown – the citizen fundraising group – is warranted.

For several months, the  group has  questioned how expense of  the project grew from $18 million to $30 million and then to its current projected cost of  roughly $54 million, citing bond payments of $3 million down the road without an identifiable revenue source.

Mr. Bobkiewicz – and City officials on the video – provided responses to some of the questions asked in a short question-and answer-period about  50 minutes into the meeting, temporarily  stopping the airing of  the video.

“On the letters of interest, we have worked with each of the individual organizations and now the issue is coming up with an agreement,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. He said officials hope to have the agreement on the Council agenda before the end of June.

In response to a question about the expense of the project, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “You know we recently looked at the cost associated with the Glenview [Ice Center] project  and really were amazed to see how this [Evanston’s] project’s cost is really  in line  with this kind of work.”

Ald. Braithwaite passed on the question, “Who stands to  gain from the project?”

“Everybody,” Mr. Bobkiewicz replied. “It’s [Robert  Crown] the most heavily used community center in Evanston. We’re expanding the hours available for community use.”

City Recreation Director Lawrence Hemingway said the facility will be operating 18 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to midnight.  Even if three hours of that time is taken by a particular group,  the other 15 hours are for the public, he  said.

Mr. Hemingway said the new hours are longer than those of the current center where the gym sits unused many days until 6 p.m., because of regulations governing day care facilities there.

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.