Northwestern University’s Club Hockey and Synchronized Skating teams as well as the school’s students and faculty will be given wide access to the City’s new $54 million Robert Crown Community under an agreement that some aldermen and residents maintained contained hazy details.

In one of the last major actions of the current City Council, aldermen voted 7-2 at their April 26 meeting in favor of a partnership agreement with Northwestern for the University’s use of the new community center, located at Main Street and Dodge Avenue.

The agreement calls for the University to pay $1 million over a three-year period, which can extend up to five years if the university’s usage time of Robert Crown is equal or less than $1 million in value.

The University had pledged $1 million initially in response to a fundraising effort in the fall of 2016 led by Friends of Robert Crown, a citizens group, to help pay for center, City staff noted in a memo.

“Due to the University’s tax status,” staff wrote, “they are precluded from donating to capital projects, and thus this is structured as a Programmatic Partnership Agreement. The payment will be used for access to the facility for the University’s club hockey and synchronized skating teams.” 

The cost of the Robert Crown Center emerged as an issue during the recent campaign with some candidates noting the project’s $54 million cost coming in well over officials’ original $30 million estimate.

At the April 26 Council meeting, Aldermen Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, were the  two Council members to vote against the proposal. 
In discussion, the two raised questions about the University’s usage time of the new center under the agreement, and also about a discrepancy about the payment – whether a donation or fee for use.

 “I think there’s enough ambiguity here that I’d considering holding this,” argued Ald. Suffredin.

The agreement allows for dedicated ice time for the University’s Men’s Club Hockey team as well as its synchronized skating team. 

Northwestern students, staff and faculty may also use the ice rink at no cost during open skate hours under the length of the agreement. 

Officials estimate 105 hours of ice time for club hockey practices and games on an annual basis, and 68 hours for synchronized skating practice and shows over the same period.

They estimate as many as 235 people per week from Northwestern will take part in the open skating.

“The agreement uses current market rates to calculate the cost for access for the University, regardless of which part of the facility they use,” said Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Director of Parks, Recreation & Community Services, in a memo on the issue. 

He said the University would normally be paying $400 per hour for ice rental, $15 per person for open skating access, $300 for room rentals, and $330 an hour for access to the gymnasium.

In discussion at the Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee, Ald. Fleming asked staff about usage time at the facility, noting in the past there has been “a lot of concern from the community regarding who was going to be able to use it.”

Mr. Hemingway told Committee members that the University did not use the rinks during peak times in the past.

“What happens and how we schedule and how we have always done with Northwestern,” he said, “is we put our youth programs and our skating programs on the calendar, and then we work with the University to try to fill in around that schedule. 

“There’s never any time, historically or even moving forward,” he stressed, “that we plan to give what we call our ‘peak time,’ or ‘prime time’ to the university in place of another program.” 

On the Council floor, City Manager Erika Storlie told aldermen that Northwestern’s use of Robert Crown has averaged to a cost of about $70,000 a year the past five years. 
With the new agreement, “I’m sure that usage will be more,” she told aldermen. Overall, though, she maintained, the agreement “does benefit the City.”

“Some portion of that million dollars may end up being a donation, because they simply won’t be able to practically utilize the facility enough to garner a million dollars’ worth of usage,” Ms. Storlie said. 

Ald. Suffredin, in his comments, noted that the Friends of Robert Crown organization is “reporting this as a contribution, but it’s not a contribution – it’s a payment for services, correct?” he said to Ms. Storlie.

Ms. Storlie responded that “in a sense, it’s prepaid services.”

Ms. Storlie continued, “but one could also look at it as we don’t know much they’ll be able to use it over the five years so we don’t know what the net donation will be.”

Ald. Suffredin argued the Council should hold over the issue to get clearer details.

“I realize this is the last meeting for a lot of you,” he said, addressing Council members, three of whom lost their seat in the recent City election and one of whom chose not to seek re-election, “but I think there’s enough questions unanswered here you should consider doing that,” he said.

Ald. Fleming also backed holding the item over, referring to a letter Council members received in 2017 stipulating the $1 million pledged should not be considered a fee for services. “But it is fee for services,” she said.

The NU commitment came early in the fundraising effort.

In the release from Northwestern in 2017 announcing the $1 million investment, the school says it was making the investment in the form of a programmatic partnership agreement, rather than a charitable gift. “In exchange for this support package the University will receive a slate of facility usage time slots and activities.”

Ald. Fleming also referred to a lawsuit filed against the City earlier this year as a reason to hold off approving the partnership agreement.

Aldermanic candidates, Clare Kelly, the eventual entail winner in the City’s First Ward, and Mary Rosinski, in the Seventh Ward, filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court this past February, alleging the City was in violation of the Freedom of Information Act in not releasing records they were seeking about the fundraising, including Letters of Agreement on what donors would receive for their contributions.

Ald. Fleming, the only alderman to run unopposed in the recent election, said a clearer memo is needed, addressing that issue as well as usage time at the facility. 
That would spare the next Council from having to deal with questions about Robert Crown, she said, “and then we can move on to the Civic Center, Harley Clarke and other items were going to need to tackle.”

But Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, one of the incumbents defeated for re-election, and a major backer of the Crown project (located in the Fourth Ward), said of the letter that  “because somebody put something down that’s not completely accurate [regarding use of the $1 million] four years ago doesn’t mean we don’t take the money.” 

He spoke of the funding model for the facility to support all the services that residents receive for free.

“It’s part of a community center that doesn’t charge for its use,” he said. “There’s a walking track that people use for free. There’s a library in the building; there is space for birthday parties; there’s a gym; there are fields that literally have hundreds of people playing in them every day – you know, just playing pickup games with their kids.” 

“But part of that is a model that requires the faculty to generate revenue to pay for all the rest of it,” he said.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, also spoke in support of passage. She noted that the agreement with the University is not “giving any sort of subsidized rate for the usage, they’re not taking prime rental time.

“It seems like all the boxes are checked in terms of this being an agreement in our favor as a City,” she said. 

Some residents offered contrary views earlier, though, during the citizen comment portion of the meeting. 

Ms. Rosinski, a longtime Realtor in the area, maintained, “There’s a lot of confusion around it” [the agreement]. 

“I personally don’t like that things are not spelled out – the details are not in there, times of usage,” she said. “I know we’re saying that they’re not going to use prime time, but, as you know, everything in real estate does need to be spelled out in writing and residents should know exactly what the agreements are for the facilities that we’re paying for.” 

Tina Paden, another longtime resident, asked, “Is Northwestern buying Robert Crown, because it should be?”

“They should purchase it,” she said. “If the citizens will not be able to use Robert Crown and Northwestern is making a small donation of $1 million for five years to use it,  whenever they want to, to have their staff use the building, whenever they want to – when do the people of Evanston who are paying for the building, get to use it?” she asked. 

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.

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