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Evanston City Council members approved giving $2 million to Northlight Theatre to assist the theater in its return to the city, and $1 million to The Aux, a group of entrepreneurs with the dream of creating a Black business hub and wellness center, in the biggest allocations to date of COVID-19 recovery funds to private groups.

City Council members used terms such as “catalytic” and “halo effect,” voting 7-1 to approve Northlight’s request for the $2 million to help construct a new performing arts center at 1012-16 Church St.

Timothy Evans, Executive Director of Northlight Theatre, said the city’s $2 million ARPA grant would “be a signal to our many supporters.” (Photo by Bob Seidenberg)

The theater’s fundraising and relocation plans had come to a halt after the pandemic hit in March 2020. From then through August 2021, Northlight lost 100% of its ticket revenue, which accounted for 48% of its operating revenue, due to the complete shutdown of live performances. The loss threatened Northlight’s return to Evanston, where it was founded in 1974.

“So we’re grateful that the outcome is this,” said a relieved-looking Timothy Evans, Northlight’s Executive Director, after the vote.

“It means that we have a leg up to get back to Evanston itself. It’ll be a signal to our many supporters that the city has a stake in this operation and in this theater complex, and so we’re quite excited to get that to happen and get the word out.”

‘A shot in the arm’

Northlight Theatre got its start in Evanston. It first operated out of the then-shuttered Kingsley School in 1974 and later performed in various locations throughout the city for over 20 years, Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, wrote in a memo.

“The theater relocated to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie in 1997 and has been producing live theater there for the past 25 years,” he said. “Northlight Theatre plans to return to Evanston in a home of its own and is in the midst of a multi-year campaign to raise $26 million to construct a new performing arts center.”

In discussion, council members spoke of the economic boost the theater’s return to the city would provide.

“We’ve seen the halo effects of other institutions in our downtown,” said Third Ward Council Member Melissa Wynne, the senior member of the council and a member of the Economic Development Committee that enthusiastically supported the proposal.

“I think if they could open this weekend, it would be the shot in the arm that we need in our downtown. And Northlight was founded here, left here reluctantly and now they’re back from Babylon,” said Wynne, adding her own historical commentary. “So, welcome.”

Northlight Theatre plans to build a $26 million theater complex on Church Street. (Northlight rendering)

Following up, Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma observed, “While 20 years in Skokie isn’t as bad as 40 years in the desert … I’m looking forward to getting Northlight here to the promised land of Evanston as soon as possible.

“In order to do that, a strong show of economic support from the city of Evanston will be kind of catalytic in Northlight’s fundraising,” he said, “and I think bringing Northlight back to Evanston will be catalytic for our downtown.”

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, the lone council member to vote against the grant, said he was happy that Northlight is relocating to Evanston.

“But I’m having a tough time wrapping my head around voting for $2 million for Northlight Theatre, given their own projections, that in order for the city to realize a return on that investment it will take 20 years,” he said,

Reid noted that Northlight, while a nonprofit organization, is “well connected, and I would say a well-financed nonprofit.” He pointed out that Northlight’s project “initially started before the pandemic and there was not a request for funds.”

To protect city, ‘claw-back’ in case of sale?

Council Member Clare Kelly, whose First Ward includes a large portion of the downtown district, said she too was excited by Northlight’s coming here. “I think this will be a huge boost to our city.”

She said, though, “in the name of fiscal responsibility, in general, the city should establish a ‘claw-back’” – referring to a legal provision that would stipulate that the city’s contribution would be returned if Northlight were to sell its property within a certain time period.

For comparison, she cited the $20 million profit that Valli Produce turned in 2021, selling the shopping center at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue for a reported $36 million, less than six years after it had purchased the property for $16 million and benefitted from a $2 million forgivable loan from the city.

Kelley said her proposal “would no way undermine the grant,” she stressed. “It would reinforce the purpose of our grant and make our Evanston community feel that much better about it.”

A number of her fellow council members did not feel that way.

Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he first heard about Kelly’s proposal the night before the meeting.

“We’ve had so many months of conversations around this issue of ARPA [the American Recovery Plan Act COVID-19 recovery funds], discussing and re-discussing the process, to pull this in the last minute is insulting,” he said.

“I’m fine with the concept as it relates to protection, but you don’t move the goal line in the fourth quarter with, like, seconds left in the game.”

Kelly said she had begun the discussion of her concerns in an email to Braithwaite and other council members in February, then sending out a copy at the meeting.

“I’m very excited about Northlight,” she said. “I’m very excited about our program [allocating ARPA money] too. I just want to stand behind the community and be fiscally responsible and have the community embrace this as much as we do.”

She spoke in support of a suggestion by interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski that in negotiating an agreement, officials take into account that if there was a sale of the building or the unlikely event the business did not prove successful, and there would be a claw-back provisions built in.

Wynne noted that Sarah Flax, the city’s Housing and Grants Manager, “who is our expert on this, has told us the money isn’t coming back to us. We will end up owing money to the federal government, and we probably will owe money that we have to find.”

The Aux ‘checks a lot of boxes’: Braithwaite

Council members followed their action on Northlight by voting 8-0 in support of the $1 million grant for ARPA funds to The Aux.

“The Aux development team was seeking the $1 million to assist with rehabilitation for the adaptive reuse of the vacant industrial building to deliver the estimated $7 million project,” wrote Zalmezak. He said the city’s investment represents 14% of total project cost.

The project is being co-developed by a team of Evanston leaders organized as The Auxiliary Cord, LLC and The Growing Season, Zalmezak said. He said The Aux co-development team includes Lori Laser, Tosha Wilson, Jacqueline White, Tiffini Holmes and Gabori Partee Sr.

Backers of The Aux (from left): Lori Laser, Tosha Wilson, Council Member Peter Braithwaite, Jacqui White and Tiffany Wilson. (Photo by Bob Seidenberg)

During council discussion, Braithwaite, in whose Second Ward the building is located, said “this business checks a lot of boxes and I just want to run through [them] real quick.

“They’re going to continue to incubate a number of businesses from now till eternity. The blend of services and support is going to help support our Black community, [which], in light of everything that we’ve learned about the reparations process, is going to be huge,” Braithwaite said.

He said he is particularly excited about the wellness component which The Aux team plans to provide. “There’s going to be a whole mental health component to this business.”

Reid asked The Aux team about the composition of the owners.

Under the proposal, a group called The Growing Season serves as The Aux’s nonprofit developer, providing initial seed money, and then is to transfer ownership to local community equity investors from the Black community once the project is complete.

Multiple businesses to benefit

Responding to Reid’s question, Jacqueline White told council members, “We’d love it to be 100% people of color. I don’t know how realistic that is,” she said.

To date, The Aux has raised $1.7 million in philanthropy and now is launching the public phase of its fundraising campaign.

“We’re going to actively try to get our people to buy in,” White said.

The Aux seeks to transform a vacant factory at 2223 Washington St. into a hub for Black-owned businesses. (Nia Architects rendering)

During citizen comment earlier in the meeting, Wilson was one of the speakers urging council support for the project. She and White, her cousin, began the project with their concept of a Laundry Café, one of the proposed businesses in The Aux.

“There are three Evanston-born Black women that were nurtured by District 65 and 202,” she said. “This project is intentional and has hired a Black-owned architectural and construction company that will support more local job creation.

“This is so necessary,” she told council members. “Do not forget that this $1 million is not going to just one project. It will go to over 10 to 20 Black women-owned businesses that will sit under one roof called The Aux.

“This project deliberately will focus on jobs, small businesses, racial equity, wellness, innovation and a proven model that is not only new to Evanston, but for the world,” she 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.

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  1. I am so dismayed about what has happened to downtown Evanston since the pandemic. It started even earlier than 2020 with several restaurants closing and not being replaced. With AMC planning to replace Century Theaters, hopefully by this summer, restaurant owners may be interested in opening nearby. Northlight Theater opening will be another factor encouraging new businesses. Can the City offer enticements to motivate business owners to open in Evanston? Wilmette restaurants are thriving, and I think one factor is people can park there without paying a fee. Evanston, with it’s Pay to Park program, discourages customers and business owners alike.