Northwestern University will start selling beer and wine at Welsh-Ryan Arena, which hosts basketball games and wrestling matches in the winter, beginning Sunday, Jan. 1, according to a press release published over the weekend.

The move comes three years after the university initially received approval for a special Class R-1 liquor license in a narrow 5-4 vote by City Council in December 2019. Former Mayor Stephen Hagerty broke the deadlock with a swing vote in favor of granting the license.

Welsh-Ryan Arena will start selling beer and wine on Jan. 1. Credit: Northwestern University

“All patrons 21 years of age and older will be required to show proper identification to receive a wristband to purchase, with options including a variety of imported, domestic and local beers, as well as red and white wine,” Northwestern said in the news release. “All sales locations will be independent from concessions stands to help with ID monitoring and crowd control.”

The city code classifying an R-1 liquor license states that an eligible venue must have a capacity of between 7,000 and 8,000. Welsh-Ryan holds just over 7,000 seats, and the license also states “alcohol may be served only on days on which there is a sporting event, recreational activity, or other entertainment event which occurs in the qualifying facility.”

Back in 2019, Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle also pushed for additional restrictions, including a requirement for alcohol sales to stop a minimum of 30 minutes before the end of any event and a two-drink-per-transaction maximum. The council unanimously approved those amendments.

In a conversation with the RoundTable this week, Revelle said supporters of the new liquor license for Welsh-Ryan have argued that legal alcohol sales can decrease excessive drinking because some people will not want to pay arena prices. Having licensed bartenders also helps with crowd monitoring and ID checks, among other things, she said.

“There’s some arguments to be said that it’s safer to sell alcohol indoors,” Revelle said. “But we will be revisiting that whole discussion when Northwestern comes to seek permission to sell in the [football] stadium.”

Impact on new football stadium

Northwestern is now setting its sights on a liquor license for a brand new, $800 million football stadium, plus a city zoning amendment to host concerts at that stadium.

Residents who took issue with the university seeking a liquor license for Welsh-Ryan will likely have the same gripes about the football stadium, like concerns about students binge drinking or drunk driving after games, according to Revelle.

Ryan Field concept illustration
A rendering of the proposed exterior of the new Ryan Field stadium project. Credit: Northwestern University

In community meetings held this fall featuring residents, council members and Northwestern officials, Evanstonians have voiced particular concern with the university’s plan to host a limited number of concerts at the proposed stadium, in addition to the normal six home football games, each year.

For instance, some Ryan Field neighbors recently launched a new group called the Most Livable City Association, which has collected nearly 500 signatures on a on a petition opposing concerts and advocating for Northwestern to contribute more money to city funds.

“If Northwestern intends to run a for-profit stadium concert business, it should pay property taxes, which help fund Evanston public schools,” David DeCarlo, one of the founders of the group, told the RoundTable in an email. “If it is going to put further strain on our police and fire departments, it should contribute to their underfunded pensions. These are burdens that the rest of us bear.”

For her part, Revelle has joined the Most Livable City Association in calling for the city to commission an independent study into the economic impact the new stadium could have on Evanston.

Northwestern paid consulting firm Tripp Umbach to do its own study, which found that the stadium project “will generate nearly $1.2 billion for the Evanston community” by 2031. 

“I want to make sure that the numbers we’re talking about are realistic numbers, because I think it’s going to be very appealing to some of my colleagues on the council to want to support it because of this amazing economic impact,” Revelle said. “So I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of how realistic those numbers are.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. If we ask NU to contribute money to the city in lieu of taxes, will we also ask other nonprofit entities like hospitals, schools and churches to contribute as well?

  2. Yes, please demand an independent review, but also don’t let Evanston get short changed by NU. $24 Million in property taxes from the U2 district would be a huge boom to schools, pensions, and Equity for Evanston. If NU wants for profit events it should pay property taxes just like every resident and business owner. We should not be subsidizing NU’s $16Billion endowment.

  3. Thank you, Councilwoman Revelle for calling for an independent study of the impact of the new venue. Just last night at a forum hosted by the Evanston/North Shore NAACP at Second Baptist Church university officials again aggressively peddled imagined benefits of its mass entertainment center. Audience members asked pointed questions about how the project will benefit minority-owned businesses, funnel consistent needed funding to help Evanston youth, and other issues. Again, university officials were all hype but provided virtually no substance, and completely sidestepped questions like the university’s failure to contribute directly to Evanston through payment in lieu of taxes. Without rigorous planning and understanding of the impact to Evanston, the city risks greenlighting a project where NU sees green—and plenty of it—but where many residents may wind up, literally and figuratively, in the red.

    1. I don’t know how the city of Evanston can “end up in the red” for this project when it’s not investing any taxpayer money. An independent investigation into the benefits is appropriate, but when the city invests nothing and gets something, that’s a benefit.
      Many of my fellow Evanstonians are so upset that Northwestern doesn’t make a large enough voluntary payment to the city that they demand that it not make the largest capital investment ever in Evanston with no public funds and no additional land off tax rolls. Because there is not payment in lieu of taxes, they demand not to receive any taxes from NU events from ticket sales, concessions, merchandise. I truly don’t get it.