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

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The city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) recommended two groups’ requests for big chunks of federal COVID-19 recovery funds. Big questions accompanied the favorable recommendations to City Council, which has the ultimate decision-making authority.

After back-to-back discussions at their Jan. 26 meeting, EDC members voted in favor of filling requests of $1 million from The AUX and $2 million from Northlight Theatre. The Aux is looking to renovate a building at 2223 Washington St. into a hub for Black businesses; Northlight plans to establish a new theater center in downtown Evanston.

These are the biggest private requests in front of the City Council, as Council members decide how to allocate the $43.1 million in federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds officials learned last year that the city would be receiving. 

The Aux envisions that the former E-Z Spuds property on Washington Street would be dedicated to community wellness and racial equity, said Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, in a memo.

Proposed plan for The Aux at 2223 Washington St.

Started by a group of entrepreneurs, The Aux would serve as an incubator for Black-owned businesses, some already established and some getting ready to launch.

A group called The Growing Season, which serves as The Aux’s nonprofit developer, is “enabling this catalytic project that would not be possible, using market forces alone, to get off the ground financially,” Zalmezak wrote.

In discussion of The Aux’s request at the Jan. 26 meeting, EDC member and Eighth Ward Council member Devon Reid said he supported the project but had some concerns about the funding model.

“I would just love to see those funds go toward the local business owners – to the Black women that are actually running The Aux –as opposed to us giving the money to The Growing Season.”

He proposed that a clause be written into any agreement between the city and The Aux “that if the building were to be sold for any reason and not to the folks at The Aux, that the city would be able to get our money back.”

Growing Season a ‘conduit’

Juli Kaufman, an advisor on the project, told EDC members that The Growing Season is not effectively the recipient of the funds.

“They are a financial conduit in partnership with a strategy to create a building. The building will be directly very much established to support those Black-owned businesses, without which [this project] they would not be able to open their businesses,” Kaufman said. “They will then hire employees; they will also partner with other businesses to help their businesses flourish. So there’s a ripple effect. The money that we’re proposing that ARPA bring into this project would just be a subsidy, one time, to close that equity gap.”

EDC and Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, called The Aux proposal “a tremendous new concept and new idea in the community. I want to see it succeed.

“But I am not comfortable approving a $1 million contribution,” she said. “I would be more comfortable with a $500,000 contribution, because I think that’s more appropriate, given the scope of this project.”

EDC and Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said he was happy to show support for the project to move to the Council.

But he said he also is uncomfortable giving the project final approval without the Council’s holding a full-blown discussion of its ARPA priorities, as he has urged in the past.

“What we need to do as a Council is determine what our priorities are, figure out what those priorities cost, see what we have left to address lower priorities – and we haven’t done any of that,” he said.

EDC and Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, noted that The Aux’s $1 million request amounts to about 14% of the group’s estimated $7.3 million project cost. By comparison, Northlight’s $2 million request represents about 8% of their budget on a $25 million project cost.

“I am supportive of The AUX, and I’m willing to support the full million dollars for this interesting and unique opportunity to support Black business owners,” he said. “So I’m comfortable at a million. But I understand Council member Wynne’s reluctance, and you know I would certainly support $500,000.”

EDC and Council member Peter Braithwaite, in whose Second Ward the Washington Street building is located, declared he was 100% in support of the proposal, as he has been since day one.

“I see this being a very unique opportunity for our city to get behind Black businesses in a way that we never have in the past,” he said.

“We have other initiatives that will allow us to give money towards social services, allow us to give money towards affordable housing,” he pointed out. “I can’t think of a better investment of tax dollars than to give Black businesses an opportunity to take care of ourselves.”

Council member Wynne moved in favor of the proposal’s going to the Council, “to have a conversation there.” Her motion receiving unanimous backing.

Theater coming to Evanston not assured: Northlight’s Executive Director 

Northlight’s request for $2 million in ARPA funds is to assist it in building a new 300-seat theater complex at 1012-16 Church St. – an estimated $25 million project.

The project would generate an estimated $56 million in new visitor spending, resulting in over $450,000 in new sales tax revenues, mostly from dining and beverage sales at downtown restaurants, Northlight officials estimated in a letter to the city earlier in the year.

The theater is pledging extensive educational and community engagement programs, such as offering the space to other community and arts organizations and for community conversations.

In his presentation at the Jan. 26 EDC meeting, Tim Evans, Northlight’s Executive Director, spoke of a question that theater officials have “heard from several of you: ‘Isn’t Northlight coming anyway?’

“And the short answer is, ‘No, we are not coming anyway,’” Evans said.

He recounted previous proposals in which Northlight teamed with developers, including one for a performing arts center that fell through in 2017. That developer proposed including Northlight in a 33-story high rise on Sherman Avenue.

Going it alone “on a complex on our own, on a now completely vacant block on Church Street, which also means that without the significant underwriting of a developer, our fundraising [target] went from raising $15 million to raising $25 million for this proposed building,” Evans said.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, he said, “we have now raised $10.5 million in cash and pledges and we have asked for several million more towards our goal of $25 million. “This means an investment from the city will help us get to our goal of breaking ground for the new theater building by the summer of 2023,” he said. 

“Additionally,” Evans added, “the city’s financial commitment will unlock several major donations from high-end donors who are on the sideline right now waiting, to see if the city wants a stake in the economic development of downtown Evanston.”

In discussion, Reid said he was excited about the project’s cultural and educational opportunities but still had concerns about the size of Northlight’s request. In 2019, the state of Illinois awarded the theater company just under $1 million for the construction of its new building.

“By your own projections, we’d receive $450,000 over the course of five years in tax revenue from all of the economic activity produced by Northlight,” Reid said. “And so if you extrapolate that out, for us to recoup our $2 million [would] take over 20 years. So I just feel I’m not super-excited about $2 million. I’d love to see that number come down.”

Wynne spoke about the economic potential of having live theater downtown. “I have been on the Council long enough to have voted for the movie theaters,” she said.

“And that was considered a very big risk by the city to move forward with – the movie theaters. And I do remember what has happened to our downtown after that. I do remember that the first year that they were fully built, they sold a million tickets. A million — none of us could believe that number, but that was transformational for our downtown.”

Reid was the lone EDC member to vote against Northlight’s request for $2 million,

The city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) recommended two groups’ requests for big chunks of federal COVID-19 recovery funds. Big questions accompanied the favorable recommendations to City Council, which has the ultimate decision-making authority.

After back-to-back discussions at their Jan. 26 meeting, EDC members voted in favor of filling requests of $1 million from The AUX and $2 million from Northlight Theatre. The Aux is looking to renovate a building at 2223 Washington St. into a hub for Black businesses; Northlight plans to establish a new theater center in downtown Evanston.

These are the biggest private requests in front of the City Council, as Council members decide how to allocate the$43.1 million in federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds officials learned last year that the city would be receiving. 

The Aux envisions that the former E-Z Spuds property on Washington St. would be dedicated to community wellness and racial equity, said Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, in a memo.

Started by a group of entrepreneurs, The Aux would serve as a business incubator for Black-owned businesses, some already established and some getting ready to launch.

A group called the Growing Season, which serves as The Aux’s nonprofit developer, is “enabling this catalytic project that would not be possible, using market forces alone, to get off the ground financially,” Zalmezak wrote.

In discussion of The Aux’s request at the Jan. 26 meeting, EDC member and 8th Ward Council member Devon Reid said he supported the project but had some concerns about the funding model.

“I would just love to see those funds go toward the local business owners – to the Black women that are actually running The Aux –as opposed to us giving the money to The Growing Season.”

He proposed that a clause be written into any agreement between the city and The Aux “that if the building were to be sold for any reason and not to the folks at The Aux, that the city would be able to get our money back.”

Growing Season a ‘conduit’

Juli Kaufman, an advisor on the project, told EDC members that The Growing Season is not effectively the recipient of the funds. 

“They are a financial conduit in partnership with a strategy to create a building. The building will be directly very much established to support those Black-owned businesses, without which [this project] they would not be able to open their businesses,” she said. “They will then hire employees; they will also partner with other businesses to help their businesses flourish. So there’s a ripple effect. The money that we’re proposing that ARPA bring into this project would just be a subsidy, one time, to close that equity gap.”

EDC and Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, called The Aux proposal “a tremendous new concept and new idea in the community. I want to see it succeed.

“But I am not comfortable approving a $1 million contribution,” she said. “I would be more comfortable with a $500,000 contribution, because I think that’s more appropriate, given the scope of this project.”

EDC and Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said he was happy to show support for the project to move to the Council.

But he said he also is uncomfortable giving the project final approval without the Council’s holding a full-blown discussion of its ARPA priorities, as he has urged in the past.

“What we need to do as a Council is determine what our priorities are, figure out what those priorities cost, see what we have left to address lower priorities – and we haven’t done any of that,” he said.

EDC and Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, noted that The Aux’s $1 million request amounts to about 14% percent of the group’s estimated $7.3 million project cost. By comparison, Northlight’s $2 million request represents about 8% of their budget on a $25 million project cost.

“I am supportive of The AUX, and I’m willing to support the full million dollars for this interesting and unique opportunity to support Black business owners,” he said. “So I’m comfortable at a million, but I understand Council member Wynne’s reluctance, and you know I would certainly support $500,000.”

EDC and Council member Peter Braithwaite, in whose 2nd Ward the Washington St. building is located, declared he was 100% percent in support of the proposal, as he has been since day one.

“I see this being a very unique opportunity for our city to get behind Black businesses in a way that we never have in the past,” he said.

“We have other initiatives that will allow us to give money towards social services, allow us to give money towards affordable housing,” he pointed out. “I can’t think of a better investment of tax dollars than to give Black businesses an opportunity to take care of ourselves.”

Council member Wynne moved in favor of the proposal’s moving to the Council, “to have a conversation there,” her motion receiving unanimous backing.

Theater coming to Evanston not assured: Northlight’s Executive Director 

Northlight’s request for $2 million in ARPA funds is to assist it in building a new 300-seat theater complex at 1012-16 Church St. – an estimated $25 million project.

The project would generate an estimated $56 million in new visitor spending, resulting in over $450,000 in new sales tax revenues mostly from dining and beverage sales at downtown restaurants, Northlight officials estimated in a letter to the city earlier in the year.

The theater is pledging extensive educational and community engagement programs, such as offering the space to other community and arts organizations and for community conversations.

In his presentation at the Jan. 26 EDC meeting, Tim Evans, Northlight’s Executive Director, spoke of a question that theater officials have “heard from several of you: ‘Isn’t Northlight coming anyway?’

“And the short answer is, ‘No, we are not coming anyway,’” Evans said.

He recounted previous proposals in which Northlight teamed with developers, including one for a performing arts center that fell through in 2017. That developer proposed including Northlight in a 33-story high rise on Sherman Avenue, a project that failed to go forward.

Going it alone “on a complex on our own, on a now completely vacant block on Church Street, which also means that without the significant underwriting of a developer, our fundraising [target] went from raising $15 million to raising $25 million for this proposed building,” Evans said.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, he said, “we have now raised $10.5 million in cash and pledges and we have asked for several million more towards our goal of $25 million. 

“This means an investment from the city will help us get to our goal of breaking ground for the new theater building by the summer of 2023,” he said. 

“Additionally, the city’s financial commitment will unlock several major donations from high end donors who are on the sideline right now waiting, to see if the city wants a stake in the economic development of downtown Evanston.”

In discussion, Reid said he was excited about the project’s cultural and educational opportunities but still had concerns about the size of Northlight’s request. In 2019, the state of Illinois awarded the theater company just under $1 million for the construction of its new building.

“By your own projections, we’d receive $450,000 over the course of five years in tax revenue from all of the economic activity produced by Northlight,” he said. “And so if you extrapolate that out, for us to recoup our $2 million [would] take over 20 years. So I just feel I’m not super-excited about $2 million. I’d love to see that number come down,” he said.

Wynne spoke about the economic potential of having live theater downtown.

“I have been on the Council long enough to have voted for the movie theaters,” she said.

“And that was considered a very big risk by the city to move forward with – the movie theaters. And I do remember what has happened to our downtown after that. I do remember that the first year that they were fully built, they sold a million tickets. A million — none of us could believe that number, but that was transformational for our downtown.”

Reid was the lone EDC member to vote against Northlight’s request for $2 million, which, like The Aux’s request, next goes to the full City Council for a final decision.

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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