In his final State of the City address, Mayor Stephen Hagerty said the community will pull together to rebound from the ravages of COVID-19. (Screenshot by Heidi Randhava)

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On April 9, Mayor Stephen Hagerty delivered his 2021 State of the City Address at the Evanston Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City Luncheon. The format of this year’s virtual event included a live question-and-answer session and recorded messages. Last year, the event was canceled because of the global pandemic.

Mohammed Ali, president of the Board of Directors of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, thanked Mayor Hagerty for his service and welcomed guests to the annual State of the City luncheon for the mayor, who will conclude his four-year term on May 11.

“Because of your proactive approach, the City of Evanston has fared much better than our neighboring towns, cities, and villages through the pandemic. The Chamber has had a very close and productive relationship with Mayor Hagerty,” said Mr. Ali.

Doug Silverstein, President of NorthShore University Health System, Evanston Hospital, thanked the Evanston Chamber of Commerce executive director Roger Sosa for hosting the event. Evanston Hospital is a 10-time presenting sponsor of the luncheon.

Mr. Silverstein expressed special gratitude for all who have reached out to the Evanston Hospital team members during the pandemic with “messages, signs, food and treats that have really kept us going.

“I could not be prouder of being part of this wonderful City and of all the people who live and work here, after watching how everyone has come together to fight COVID-19 as a family. As a member of the Mayor’s Weekly COVID-19 Task Force, every sector leader and their team members are making a difference.

 “On behalf of NorthShore, we want to congratulate the mayor on his four wonderful years serving this community, and especially for his tremendous leadership during the last 14 months,” Mr. Silverstein said in his introduction of Mayor Hagerty.

Both Mr. Silverstein and Mr. Ali congratulated Mayor-elect Daniel Biss and said they look forward to working with him in his new role.

Mayor Hagerty, who was sworn in four years ago with the 80th Evanston City Council, recalled the “excitement and pride we shared with our families that night, and our collective determination to serve our community. The four years since that evening have been unlike any other.”

Challenges and Accomplishments

The Mayor cited challenges during his term in office, including the global pandemic, racial inequity and injustice, a growing climate crisis, and threats to our nation’s democracy.

“As a community, we’ve stepped up to address these historic generational challenges while continuing to do the day-to-day work of making Evanston a City that works for all of us.

“Together in the last four years we’ve built a brand new community center worthy of our investment, providing state-of-the art preschool, a library and recreational facilities that our residents will use and enjoy for decades to come,” said Mayor Hagerty, referring to the new Robert Crown Community Center.

In his recorded video message, the Mayor named many  improvements and achievements during his tenure:

  • Renovating the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center and updating the Levy Senior Center Library, in partnership with the Levy Senior Center Foundation;
  • Completing the Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue Project improving a nearly two-mile corridor through downtown Evanston and Northwestern University campus areas, in partnership with the University;
  • Securing new customers for sales of water – Lincolnwood this year, adding to Morton Grove and Niles;
  • Completing the Clearwell 9 Replacement 5.0 million gallon treated water storage reservoir with a new similar- sized facility and submersible pumping system;
  • New murals and sculptures, outdoor concerts and performances;
  • Plans for “a new chapter for the Harley Clarke mansion”;
  • Improvements to policing, reviewing the Evanston Police Department’s use-of-force policy and providing all officers with body-worn cameras;
  • Sparking a national conversation as the first city in the nation to allocate funding for reparations;
  • Enhancing local career opportunities, employing more than two dozen residents in constructing the Robert Crown Community Center and other Bulley & Andrews projects since 2018;
  • Launching the Mayor’s Employment Advisory Council;
  • Youth-led marches for racial equity and social justice;
  • Adding 58 new affordable housing units with 115 more under construction or approved for 2021;
  • Rehabbing 28 owner-occupied and rental units for low- and moderate-income residents;
  • Adopting a municipal action plan to address climate change;
  • Becoming the first Illinois community to commit to 100% renewable energy; and
  • The collective work that has been done to meet the needs of the community and save lives during the global pandemic.

“No question, helping lead our City’s emergency operations effort was the most unexpected yet rewarding time during my term as Mayor. Our community’s response to COVID-19 is something we should all forever be proud of, while remembering all those that we lost,” said Mayor Hagerty.

He thanked the 80th City Council for doing the difficult work of City government, acknowledging that there is always more work to be done.

“I wish the 81st City Council the best of luck as we continue to build our community, solve problems, provide opportunities, and inspire other cities to take bold action to meet our collective challenges.

“It has been my honor and privilege to serve as your mayor. Thank you and be well,” said Mayor Hagerty in closing.

Mr. Sosa welcomed guests to the live question-and-answer session that followed, and presented initial questions from the Chamber of Commerce, followed by questions submitted by attendees using the “submit question” function on their screen.

Q&A: Assessing the Pandemic and Beyond

The following are excerpts from a selection of questions and responses during the live forum.

Mr. Sosa:  “What do you see as some of Evanston’s biggest economic development challenges as we emerge from the pandemic?”

Mayor Hagerty:  “I think the biggest economic challenges facing the City right now are three things. Number one, unemployment is still high. Prior to this pandemic, unemployment in Evanston was at 2.5%. It spiked during the pandemic up to 12% unemployment, and right now it sits at around 7.5%. So there’s still a lot of people in our own community who we need to get back to work. That is absolutely one of the priorities.

“Second, we know there has been an incredible amount of disparities with this pandemic. Some people have, given their profession, done better because of the pandemic. Others are sort of net-neutral. And then there are others who have really been struggling financially. We know that those disparities have also fallen along racial lines. I think the work of the Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council … is never more important than right now in helping people get back to work.

“Lastly, there needs to and will be a focus on supporting businesses and our business districts. If you walk around downtown Evanston, there’s a lot of vacancies. And it’s hard. I sometimes get a little emotional when I walk around and see those vacancies, or pick up the newspaper and read about the Hilton Orrington Hotel going into bankruptcy. Or the movie theater not coming back. So there is a lot of work ahead.

“I know the new City Council that was just elected – which includes many new members as well as some incumbents, and Mayor-elect Daniel Biss – I know they are very, very committed to what could be the final phase of recovery, which is a ‘whole of community recovery’ effort. … We’re going to look to the [Evanston] Chamber to be a big part of that, Roger.”

Mr. Sosa:  “What kind of opportunities do you see the City having going forward?”

Mayor Hagerty:  “I think there are opportunities. … With the movie theater, we’ve had more than a dozen different movie companies say, ‘We’re interested.’ My expectation is we’re going to continue to have a movie theater here in Evanston.

“The hotel is vacant right now, but we’re already starting to see the economy pick up. The employment report last week was almost a million new jobs in this country. We’re going to see some of that too.

“I actually think Evanston’s position to recover is stronger than some other communities. … In the movie-entertainment-service industry, we’re going to see that. But we’re going to need help from all of our partners around the City, including the City government. We’ve got the forty-five million or so dollars that are going to come through the American Rescue Plan, which the Biden administration and our Congresswoman [Jan] Schakowsky and others passed, so that’s exciting.

“If I have disappointment in choosing not to run again – you know, there’s wonderful things about being Mayor. And there’s other things – you’re like, ‘Is this what I’m spending my time on?’ It’s a challenging job, no doubt.

“But one of the huge opportunities is how we best invest that money. And I certainly believe the City Manager’s Office, Mayor-elect, and City Council will start to invest it in the local economy, getting people back to work, and getting our business sectors and our commercial sectors – of which we have about a dozen – back up online, and start to fill in some of these vacancies that we have around town.

“I’ve also got a meeting next week with the folks at Northlight Theatre. They continue to be committed to wanting to bring Northlight to Evanston. I think that’s really important, having a performing arts theatre in downtown Evanston.

“I think we’ve learned from the pandemic that there’s an opportunity to do even more in activating outdoor spaces. We saw it over at the Main-Dempster district, where we shut off a street last summer and allowed for outdoor dining. There’s opportunities to activate alleyways … with the funding and the development that I see coming. You think about Bookman’s Alley, between Sherman and Benson avenues …

“We have lots of parcels of land or buildings that are being renovated here in town. I’m very excited with the Fountain Square building that is under new ownership, that’s undergoing a major renovation right now. The Burger King didn’t make it through the pandemic, but I think we’re going to see some exciting development on that land. We have many other parcels in the downtown area and other areas, as well.

“I don’t see the trend of transit-oriented design changing. I think we’re going to continue to see that here. I think the Council has done a really nice job of approving projects like the Albion project downtown.

“The “Five Fifth TIF” district in the Fifth Ward encompasses Simpson Street in the commercial development, but it also encompasses the area where our Civic Center is. Alderman [Robin] Rue Simmons and former Alderman Delores Holmes were instrumental in having a vision to create this TIF district. I think that’s going to be very beneficial, not only for the Fifth Ward, but for the City.

“There’s an opportunity to support entrepreneurs with the Good Neighbor Fund this year. I appreciate Northwestern [University] setting aside additional money, really for racial equity. [The fund] used to be a million dollars a year. This year, it’s $1.5 million,” said the Mayor.

In allocating the grant funds from Northwestern, Mayor Hagerty said the City Council has set aside $400,000 for the minority business incubator program and $300,000 for a pilot guaranteed-income program, similar to other programs around the country.

The Mayor said the 2020 Census will reveal how the racial make-up of the community has changed.

“We know the Latino population is growing. We know the Black population has decreased. … We want to be a City that is diverse in every way – socioeconomically, racially, ethnically – and [the 2020 Census] will be a guide a to help us see where we are and what we need to do to maintain our affordability.”

“Lastly, the $45 million that’s coming down from the federal government to be invested. … I think we’re going to see part of that money being used to stabilize our City finances. We’re going to use some of that for economic development. And then we’re going to use some for infrastructure improvements. And there could be some used for human service investments. How exactly it breaks down, we’ll see,” said Mayor Hagerty.

Mayor Hagerty responded candidly when Mr. Sosa asked him to talk about his favorite part of being Evanston’s Mayor.

“There’s a lot I love about this job. I love the fast-paced nature of it. I love all of the different issues that come across your plate. Being the Mayor of any city is going to be one of the richest experiences that you will have in your lifetime.

“As I get ready to go out of office, I’m going to miss that. You really get to know your community in a truly unique way. I know many faith leaders in town, many business leaders in town, many nonprofit leaders in town and advocates for a variety of issues. I love working with young people and students in our town.

“I find it fascinating that some people will just belittle and demean me, and yet other people will say, “Oh, you’re the Mayor of Evanston. I remember a 90-year-old person who was so excited to meet the Mayor of Evanston, and said, ‘Can we have a photo together?’ That kind of stuff is very rich. This is a job with a unique amount of diversity and perspective.

When asked to expand on the “whole of community response to COVID-19, Mayor Hagerty spoke about his 25-year career in the emergency-management industry.

“When we declared a state of emergency on March 15 of last year as a City, I made it very clear this was going to be a ‘whole community response and recovery.’  That means, if your plan is the federal government is going to save you, your local government is going to save you, your church or your employer is going to save you, then you don’t have a plan.

“We all need to take responsibility. We all need to work together. What illustrates this best is, we created the Mayor’s Pandemic Task Force,” said Mayor Hagerty.

He identified the different sectors that needed to be represented, such as senior living facilities, contacted the people he thought would be best qualified to lead each sector, and asked them to form a working group within their sector.

The Mayor cited the Evanston Community Foundation COVID-19 Relief Fund is an example of the benefits of the whole of community response.

“They stepped up and raised over $4 million, plus they redirected $2 million that they would normally put into the community each year. So we had $6 million in a small community of 74,000 people that went to the most essential basic needs that people had in our community who were struggling around food insecurity and housing.”

Mayor Hagerty named other organizations that represented other sectors in the response to COVID-19: Connections for the Homeless; Interfaith Action of Evanston; local businesses; restaurants, grocery stores and markets that provided tens of thousands of meals to people in Evanston; local hotels that helped house Evanston’s homeless population; the faith community; non-profits; public health partners including AMITA Health Saint Francis, Evanston Hospital and Erie Health Centers; Northwestern University; Evanston/Skokie School Districts 65 and 202; Evanston Public Library; first responders, health-care workers and essential workers; elected officials, and City staff.

“The list goes on. I just want to thank every person, every organization who helped get this community through a very challenging period. I think if you look at it on a comparative basis – whether it’s vaccinations, COVID rates, fatality rates –  this community has done extremely well relative to other communities, and I think it’s because of this entire whole of community effort. I would also say it’s because we’ve invested for over a hundred years in a Public Health Department,” said Mayor Hagerty.

News disclosed at the State of the City was that Evanstonians have gone to over 900 different locations to get vaccinated, in addition to those who have received their vaccines through the allocation to Evanston of 1,000 to 1,500 vaccines per week.

“As a result of that, 93% of our seniors over the age of 65 have been vaccinated, and over 50% of our entire population age 16 and older in Evanston has had at least one dose, which is way above these metrics at the federal and State level,” said Mayor Hagerty.

The mayor stressed that Evanston residents are complying with guidance, which has been based on science. He also noted the importance of contact tracing in Evanston “from day one” of the pandemic, and the behind-the-scenes work being done by City of Evanston Chief Information Officer Patrick Deignan and his team and the public information campaign at the local, State, and national level.

Mayor Hagerty said Evanston was one of the first cities to get federal aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than $5.5 million in federal grants and entitlement funding related to COVID-19.

He said that City Manager Erika Storlie and her team passed a balanced budget despite the pandemic, and “did a really good job of putting the brakes on spending so that we didn’t find ourselves even more in a deficit. And that meant a lot of hard decisions that resulted in cuts in jobs and services.”

Mayor Hagerty said he expects an update on finances for 2020 by April 26.

“I think we’re going to find we actually did better than we thought. That’s really positive news,” he said.

The annual report for 2020 is now available on the City of Evanston website at www.cityofevanston.org

“Despite all the good work that’s come from working collaboratively, we can’t forget that, as of [April 9], we have sadly lost 116 residents of our community, but our collective efforts have really saved many other lives,” said Mayor Hagerty.

The next phase, he said, is the “whole of community recovery effort, which is going to rely on all of us in this community to work together to get this City back on its feet.”

Mr. Sosa:  “As a Mayor, you get to visit and tour a lot of interesting places and organizations in Evanston. Tell me what was one of the most memorable.”

Mayor Hagerty:  “As the Mayor, you literally get the Key to the City. I have a key – I’m going to have to give it up soon – that will open any door in the City Hall. The most interesting place that I have visited with that key is the attic of the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.

“Very few people other than our facilities people have been in the attic. It is amazing. I think it might be the most interesting part of City Hall. It’s got dormers, and you can look out the window and you can see downtown and you can see the lake. It’s phenomenal. It would make a great entertainment space. You could put hundreds and hundreds of people up there. The only problem is, you don’t have an elevator that goes to the attic of the building, so there’s logistical problems.”

When asked what issues were tackled, other than the pandemic, in 2020, Mayor Hagerty said one of the things he was most proud of was the grand opening of the Robert Crown Community Center and Library.

He said City staff and City Council “didn’t get quite the celebration that I and others had envisioned. It’s really almost a one-of-a-kind facility in this country that is going to benefit generations of Evanstonians to come.”

He highlighted Evanston’s “commitment to repair the harm from redlining and other forms of discrimination in the 20th century – Evanston being the very first to commit to a local reparations program. It will be $10 million in total.

“As many people know, the leader on reparations was Alderman [Robin] Rue Simmons, who also will be stepping down in a month. … I also want to recognize Alderman Ann Rainey, who had the idea that the way to fund reparations [was], ‘Let’s look at new revenue.’ And that was the cannabis revenue. That was really a novel idea.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us. We are leading a movement across the country because of those in our community who have really pushed this. The Council has fully allocated…$400,000 of the $10 million total. There’s lots to come,” said Mayor Hagerty.

He cited another partnership with Northwestern University, in addition to grant funds for racial equity.

“Reviewing our use-of-force policies in partnership with Northwestern – and I’m really proud of the work that the City and our Police Department under the leadership of Chief [Demitrous] Cook have been doing,” said Mayor Hagerty.

“We adopted an environmental justice resolution. There’s a group of residents advocating for environmental justice, and rightly so, particularly as we face a changing climate.

The Mayor also emphasized the importance of “better supporting the mental health needs of those in our community. I didn’t realize how bad it was and what a crisis it was four years ago when I took this job, and we need to do more as a community there.”

When asked, “What’s next for you?” Mayor Hagerty said he will enjoy the summer with his family, since he has not had a summer off since going into the eighth grade, when he started working for a building contractor.

“My longer-term vision for myself is to find the right role in my company, which continues to help communities all over the country respond and recover from disasters. … I’m also interested in getting re-involved in board service.”

In closing, Mr. Sosa asked, “What’s your most memorable day on the job?”

The Mayor recalled his election in 2017.

“Having [former] Mayor Lorraine Morton swear me in was really, really memorable,” said Mayor Hagerty.

But when recalling his most memorable experience, the mayor shared an experience that centered around his then-10-year-old son, rather than himself.

“It will be with our entire family for the rest of our lives. Three years ago, I gave the State of the City Address. Later that day, [then Vice President] Joe Biden came and spoke at the Northwestern Kellogg School [of Management], and I was invited with my family to go and listen to his speech,” said Mayor Hagerty, who was seated in the front row with his wife and family.

Vice President Biden, after having received a standing ovation, “made a bee-line right to my son, Garrett. He shakes his hand and says, ‘I can’t believe your parents brought you to this.’ He doesn’t know I‘m the Mayor or anything.

“He gives an hour-and-fifteen-minute speech. My son is wiggling around in his seat…After the speech, the Vice President sat down and took three or four dollar bills out of his wallet.

“He turns to my son, he gives him this money, and says, ‘Any kid that sat through that speech, deserves this money for an ice cream.’

“That photo of him handing my son money was in the news on one of the stations. Afterward, we were the first people in line to meet the Vice President in the green room. My wife and I were very excited,” said Mayor Hagerty. He took off his own lapel pin of the Evanston Lighthouse and told his son give it to the vice president as a token of Evanston.

“I told my son, ‘You can put in some context, and say, ‘Hey, my dad is the Mayor.’ He has no idea who I am,” said Mayor Hagerty.

When the Hagerty family walked into the room, the Vice President invited Garrett Hagerty to have a one-on-one conversation. Like most 10-year-olds, Garrett dutifully handed the pin to the Vice President but did not tell him that his dad was Evanston’s new Mayor.

When Vice President Biden gave Mayor Hagerty and his wife a curious look, he finally learned that Garrett’s father was the mayor.

“And Joe Biden reached into his pocket and he shook my son’s hand, and said, ‘I want you to have one of my Command Coins,’” said Mayor Hagerty, explaining that the coin is periodically given to people by officials. When presented by the President or Vice President of the United States, the coin is called a Command Coin.

“Joe Biden said, ‘The challenge is, if I see you again, I need you to have this coin with you, or you have to buy me an ice cream.’ That moment, on that day, was so memorable to my son and to us … meeting the Vice President, who subsequently becomes the President of the United States. … It was an incredibly inspiring and moving day for us,” said Mayor Hagerty.