Northwestern’s new Ryan Field promises to alter the surrounding neighborhood in ways at once material and meaningful. Some of the changes might be positive; others might not be. But let’s not pretend they won’t be significant.
Northwestern wants to put on as many as 12 outdoor concerts per year and sell alcohol at a stadium holding 35,000 people. This will mean more traffic congestion, noise, and potentially a lot of intoxicated drivers. But the project could also impose more fundamental changes and raise important questions about economic fairness and quality of life in a town whose stated goal is “creating the most livable city in America.”
The report presented by the University’s paid consultant on Nov. 17 offered theoretical figures and putative benefits. Northwestern claims the Ryan Field rebuild will create an “enormous economic boost” for Evanston. But economists disagree on whether stadiums produce the economic manna their promoters always claim. “In reality, stadiums have a poor record of producing such benefits,” Global Sport Matters reported in June.
Missing from the consultant’s projections are a kind of cost taught in Economics 101: Externalities. These are costs from a transaction borne by people who were excluded from negotiating said transaction – i.e., people who must pay though they didn’t get to be at the table.
Here, the external costs could include everything from concert noise to expenses for road repairs to possible declines in property values. Some of those costs will be borne primarily by the neighbors of Ryan Field, but others will hit the pocketbook and quality of life of every resident of Evanston.
The neighbors of Ryan Field knew they were buying or renting near a football stadium. But the stadium is only zoned for collegiate athletics and other limited uses related to the University’s educational mission. NU’s current yearly schedule of six or seven home games differs starkly from what it is proposing with 12 concerts and other, unspecified large-scale, for-profit events.
True, Out of Space already puts on a handful of concerts at Canal Shores nearby. But those concerts hold a maximum of 4,000 fans. Northwestern proposes to swell the ranks of concert goers by 775%.
There can be little doubt that the new Ryan Field will be a financial jackpot for Northwestern. It will be more TV-friendly, for one thing.
The Big Ten’s lucrative new TV deal will bring in average annual revenue of $62.5 million per school, according to the Los Angeles Times. ESPN estimates that number will grow to $80 million to $100 million per school around the time the new Ryan Field is built.
Let’s not forget concessions, either. Everyone in the stadium business knows there is real money there, especially when alcohol sales are involved. But here’s the real cherry on top: Northwestern will have the singular privilege of running this booze-and-entertainment profit center without paying property taxes.
Evanston homeowners face the maximum allowable property tax increase to fund District 65 and 202 schools, the Roundtable recently reported – along with possible hikes to fund public safety pensions. And while new Ryan Field will yield sales taxes (paid by the patrons and fans) and Northwestern will be on the hook for one-time building permit fees, the new stadium will operate as a tax-free money machine.
None of this necessarily means it shouldn’t be built. But Northwestern should be more candid about the external costs and take steps to allay the community’s concerns – making Evanstonians true partners in the project.
Since the community is being asked to bear costs for benefits that are speculative, the community should be given a real seat at the bargaining table.
To make neighbors and all of Evanston true partners in this project, Northwestern should consider:
- Creating a neighborhood council made up of residents and university personnel that has the power to approve or reject planned non-sporting events each year.
- Offering a community benefits agreement for all of Evanston, with provisions that include granting 35% of all stadium concessions (not just one-time construction contracts) to minority- or women-owned Evanston restaurants and suppliers.
- Agreeing to a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), a percentage of annual stadium revenues – with a guaranteed minimum amount every year – earmarked to benefit Evanston public schools.
Northwestern should be applauded for proposing a privately financed project. But it should stop pretending it will be cost-free to the community. It will not be. It will change the 7th Ward – and all of Evanston – in ways that are hard to predict.
Judy Berg, Aaron Cohen and Sonia Cohen
Seventh Ward residents of Evanston