Northlight Theatre original facade design. Credit: City of Evanston packet

Northlight Theatre officials were a few weeks away from buying a downtown property for their new theater center last March when the talks had to be canceled because of the uncertainty cast by COVID-19.

Now back in talks on the property, theater officials are seeking help from the City – requesting $2 million of the federal stimulus funds Evanston recently received – to get the project back on track.

At the City’s May 26 Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting, Timothy Evans, Executive Director of Northlight Theatre, told EDC members that the theater company was weeks away from signing a purchase agreement for the property at 1012 Church St. in March of 2020 when the pandemic, in effect, “closed our theater, and ended our negotiations until we could be operational,” he said.

He said Northlight is back in talks and now actively negotiating a purchase for that property.

“Our timing for this project, which we estimate will cost approximately $25 million, is immediate, as our lease with the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts ends in the next three years and we currently intend to start construction in the fall of 2022,” he said in a letter to the City that was included in the Committee packet.

“A capital commitment from the City of Evanston in the amount of $2 million for a project that benefits Evanston in such an impactful way is critical to seeing this project through to completion,” the letter continued.

Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Manager, noted that the $2 million amounts to approximately 20% of the fundraising total the organization is planning to do for the project and just 8% of the $25 million total project costs.

In this case, he said that the City’s $2 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds would “not only leverage an additional $23 million in construction but also an estimated $55 million in new visitor spending resulting in over $400,000 in new sales tax revenues mostly from dining and beverage sales at downtown Evanston restaurants,” because of the theater’s relocation.

“The investment also leverages a new activity in downtown, desperately needed with the ongoing decline of retail stores resulting from industry restructuring/e-commerce growth,” Mr. Zalmezak said in a memo.        

“Public benefits yielded from the investment include shared space opportunities, education opportunities, and job training opportunities. Northlight is committed to breaking down barriers to access and will offer free programming to community members in need.”

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, in whose Fourth Ward the Northlight site is located, told Mr. Evans he was looking “forward to being a part of making this happen.” He asked Mr. Zalmezak whether there were any potential sources of financial support for the project other than the ARPA funds.

Mr. Zalmezak noted the City “was very limited” on that front, especially after COVID, which, among other things, “decimated” the City’s hotel revenues.

Mr. Evans said Northlight has received a $1 million allocation from the State toward the project. “We also have about $4 1/2 million from foundations and other agencies,” he said.

“We are just now restarting our capital campaign,” he told Committee members. “And we feel that once we acquire this building that that will spur even more contributions and, and capital growth for, for the construction of the building.”

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, indicated he would like to see further specifics. “Because we do know that with any project, yes, there are benefits, but there also are new liabilities created for the City through Fire, EMS [Emergency Medical Services], police, roads, and new infrastructure,” he said. “And so I’d like to see what is the City’s investment over the long term in those aspects.”

He also pointed out that Northlight’s request would amount to 10% of the ARPA money Evanston is due to receive this year.

“And so I just really want to scrutinize this and make sure that we are getting the best bang for our buck,” he said.

Mr. Zalmezak noted that the economic development projects funded with American Rescue Plan Act will likely be reviewed through a framework committee yet to be determined.

“Northlight Theater would be considered an applicant for funding through that future process/pipeline. From my perspective, I think these [Northlight and others] are priority projects that I want to kind of put on the front burner as you think about how we use that economic development bucket of our ARPA,” he told Committee members.

Northlight has deep roots in the City. It was founded in 1974 as the Evanston Theatre Company and remained in Evanston 24 years before leaving in 1998 to become the resident theater company at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

In his letter, Mr. Evans estimated the theater’s relocation downtown would have significant economic impact over five years for the City, generating $55 million in new spending from both residents and those from outside communities that would have been spent elsewhere.

“We have about 50,000 audience members pass through our doors each season,” he said at the meeting. “And frankly, we anticipate more in our new Evanston location because we’re close to public transportation and because of the ideal location, and then the urban environment that Evanston is. Most of these audiences will have pre- and post-show lunches and dinners. They will frequent Evanston restaurants and bars and retail shops, some will stay in our hotels.

“This is good for Evanston, because theater attendees spend money on taxable items – food, drinks, merchandise, hotels – which, in turn, generate sales tax revenue which supports the City and its residents,” he wrote.

“Municipalities are constantly seeking ways in which they can generate this type of new spending,” he said. “Large-scale cultural venues like Northlight achieve the desired goal of new spending without draining local resources.”

He also said the theater intends to serve as a sort of “public square,” noting that the “need for a community to share in civil discourse on current and relevant issues has never been greater. Northlight intends to activate its space seven days a week, well beyond the plays on our stage. In addition to offering our space to other community and arts organizations, we anticipate hosting community conversations, guest lecturers from Northwestern and other universities, leaders from area social service organizations; basically any group or organization that requires space to engage with each other and the greater community,” he said.

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.