First in will not necessarily be first out, with the City’s Economic Development Committee opting Dec. 1 to hold off on recommending $1 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds until it has a better grasp of the whole picture.

Members of the city’s EDC were weighing a request from The Growing Season. The nonprofit organization is seeking approval of $1 million from the city’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds to assist in the cost of renovating the building at 2223 Washington Street, the former site of EZ Spuds, to serve as home of The Aux – a Black business hub bringing together a number of Black-operated businesses and wellness groups. No representative of the Growing Season or the Aux spoke at the meeting, which was virtual rather than in person.

The $1 million sought from the ARPA-Economic Development fund would be used to assist with the adaptive reuse of the vacant industrial building in an estimated $7 million project.

EDC members had heard at a previous meeting from Northlight Theatre, seeking a recommendation from the committee for $2 million in ARPA funds to support its move to a space downtown.

In discussion at the Dec. 1 meeting, EDC members stressed they valued the proposals but indicated that timing was an issue as the city is weighing requests from a number of groups wanting a slice of Evanston’s $43.1 million federal pie.

The Aux, at 2223 Washington Street, plans to bring together Black-owned businesses that are dedicated to community wellness. (Nia Architects rendering) Credit: Nia Architects rendering

Leading off, Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, said he was not ready to vote on The Growing Season’s request at this time.

“I feel very strongly that we need to put together a structure of how we’re going to spend our ARPA money, not just for economic development but in other categories as well,” he said.

“In the interest of transparency and the interest of engagement, we should not be kind of piecemealing ARPA money out on a first-come-and-first-served basis,” Nieuwsma added. 

“Our friends at The Aux are familiar with the system and savvy enough to get their application in first, which is great. But I don’t want to make a decision on any of the money until we have allowed all applicants an equal shot at making their case,” he said. 

He recommended EDC members devote time discussing the process they would like to see in place to assess the various proposals expected to come before the committee. The process would help define “what our decision criteria should be.”

Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, the next to speak, said he was in general agreement with Nieuwsma. “We need to figure out the process, and we should create a process where everyone has an equal shot at the funds.”

However, he noted, “We talk a lot about equity. This group [The Aux] has been working on this project for a while. In this instance, I think I’m comfortable – skeptical but comfortable – moving forward with it.”

Reid added that he shared reservations he might have about the project with the Black entrepreneurs who are leading the enterprise.

He said his main reservation “is just making sure that we’re benefiting those Black businesses and we’re really making strides toward our equity goals with this. And I’m confident in these women, that they have the wits and the smarts to assure that they’re getting the best deal possible.”

Other members expressed views in line with Nieuwsma’s, that the committee should refine the process before issuing recommendations.

A lot of money

“I recognize that this is a very, very worthy project,” said Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. “It’s different. It’s exciting. It’s really bringing new ideas to Evanston on how to support Black businesses and how to renovate a building that is going to sit there vacant for a long time because of its size.

“But I do want to have us have some kind of guidelines and requirements and matrix,” she said, “so that we are able to evaluate requests for this money in a way that provides fairness and transparency to all of the applicants as they come forward.”

Further, Wynne said, “I recognize that The Aux has been working for quite some time and, as Jonathan [Nieuwsma] said, was all ready for this immediately.”

Nevertheless, “I am concerned that a million dollars is a lot of our money,” she said, “and, as we’ve all said many times, this is a once-in-a-generation amount of money that we’re going to have coming into Evanston. So I am reluctant to vote on this tonight without understanding or having a thorough enough discussion on ‘What’s our goal?’ [and] ‘What are going to be our standards for achieving that goal?’ and then, ‘What are going to be the measurement criteria that we use?’”

Northlight a similar case

Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, chairing the meeting, noted that Council members were scheduled to have a broader discussion of the ARPA allocation process at a special Council meeting, which is scheduled for this Monday, Dec. 6.

In the case of this particular request, he said, “If one’s issue is, ‘I want to see what else is out there,’ my comment will be, ‘Fair enough,’” he said.

However, he said, “with economic development, our approach in the past – at least the past couple of times that I’ve been a member on this committee – is we don’t put the cart before the horse.

“Typically, it’s the businesses that are coming – everything is tied to the market, and then we’re responding.

“The reality is, this business and every other business,” Braithwaite added, “is they come when they’re ready. And the question is, ‘How long do we wait?’ I will use Northlight Theatre as one that’s going to be coming through as well. That’s another million-dollar ‘ask’ that we’re waiting [on]. We know that they have had the discussion. They have a track record. That’s not going to be a surprise for me, and I’m going to be ready to support that.”

Rendering of proposed Northlight Theatre on Church Street (from City of Evanston materials) Credit: City of Evanston packet

At-large member Kathy Gallagher directed her comments more to businesses’ overall need.

“I still feel like Evanston, compared to our neighbors, is quite dead and desolate,” she said.

She said a main concern of hers, as a business owner, “is seeing a lot of empty shops and not a lot people coming around.”

EDC member Jeanne Lindwall, who serves as a liaison to the committee from the city’s Plan Commission, said, like other committee members, she is generally supportive of The Aux project.

But in the case of that group’s request as well as those of Northlight and others, she suggested EDC members should also take into account how likely is a project to succeed with the infusion of financial support they will be receiving.

She also said the committee “is really kind of looking at benefits to the community.”

“When Northlight came to talk to us, they talked about the jobs and the arts programming and the other things,” she said. 

“The Aux clearly has a lot of potential community benefits, and it certainly addresses some long-standing equity concerns,” she said. 

Beyond that, she said, the city needs to look at what synergies there are “between the particular economic development project and the other goals that are being considered, in terms of training and then other kind of noneconomic development objectives.”

Voting 6-0, EDC members tabled until their Jan. 26 meeting acting on The Growing Season’s request for $1 million in ARPA funds.

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.