More than 100 people set aside holiday preparations to gather Dec. 19 at Second Baptist Church for a forum about Northwestern University’s plans to build a new Ryan Field.
At the forum, hosted by the Evanston branch of the NAACP, most questions and comments focused on the impact of the Central Street football stadium project on the community, especially local businesses, job opportunities, traffic and youth.
University President Michael Schill, who took over as president Sept. 12, said at the beginning of the forum, “This community is both Northwestern and Evanston. The two are always going to be intertwined, and we don’t take that for granted.”
Schill said Northwestern is committed to spending 35% of all stadium construction contracts with minority- and women-owned businesses. He also asserted that the project will bring more than 2,000 new jobs to Evanston and will triple tax revenue to the city.
“We understand, as Evanston goes, so does Northwestern,” Schill said. “The strength of the two are in parallel with each other.”
Most of the talk Monday centered around contracts, youth and jobs. None of the controversy swirling around the stadium project in the community was addressed at the meeting.
The Central Street project is opposed by some of the stadium’s neighbors, who object to the sale of liquor and the proposed 12 concerts a year.
The university will pay for the project via private funding and will require no taxpayer money. But some residents who started a petition against the stadium argue that because as a nonprofit the university pays no taxes, the city is likely not to see a longterm financial benefit.
A report released by Northwestern asserts the new field will yield economic benefits from both construction and operation of the new facility. The city has said that it has not yet examined the findings.
But none of these issues were brought up during the question-and-answer session, which was moderated by Northwestern alumnus Michael Blake, Chief Executive of the New York City-based Atlas Strategy Group, which has been hired by Northwestern.
Attendees could ask questions and make comments in person or through livestream chat. Although questioners did not identify themselves by name, a few agreed to have their names included in RoundTable coverage.
What about local jobs?
The first questioner said she applauded the university’s commitment to target local, minority- and women-owned businesses as subcontractors. She also asked if some percentage of contract decisions had already been made.
Peter Braithwaite, a former City Council member who is director of Procurement, Diversity and Community at Northwestern, responded that the project is still in the outreach phase, which includes explaining to people where they can get information.
(Full disclosure: Braithwaite serves on the RoundTable board, the governing body of our nonprofit business. He does not assign, write or edit stories.)
“The construction company contract has not been signed,” Braithwaite said. “After it has been signed, there will be a project manager working specifically with members of the community to outline all those opportunities.”
He said that, according to the plan, teardown of the existing stadium would not start until next season’s last football game; then work would commence on the new Ryan Field, planned to open in 2026.
Another questioner asked, “With regard to minority owned businesses and companies … will they prioritize local minority-owned businesses? Regarding the 2,000 new jobs, how do we ensure that they go to local individuals? And, if local individuals do not have the skills needed for construction, how do we make sure that we build up people with low skills so they can use this as a career experience?”
Braithwaite emphasized that a project manager will hold informational meetings to break down bid packages. The Ryan Field project, he said, will provide opportunities to support local businesses.
Braithwaite, who stepped down from his post as Second Ward City Council member in July after 12 years in office to take the Northwestern job, also responded to the question about workforce development.
“We’re currently having conversations with Rebuilding Warehouse and any organization that’s going to help our Evanston residents get job-ready,” he said. “If that means taking care of their personal needs before that, it will happen. And we will make sure that they get the training that the construction manager has promised us.”
In response to a question about job opportunities for professional services, concessions and food vendors, Northwestern officials said the schedule will allow time for community members to build skill sets needed to take advantage of the full range of available positions. “Any [jobs] connected to the contract will be advertised and will also be measured,” Braithwaite said.
Sustainability, traffic mitigation
“How is energy going to be reduced? How is waste going to be reduced? How is construction waste going to be reduced?” asked a questioner, focusing on what LEED certification will mean for environmental sustainability.
Northwestern Vice President for Operations Luke Figora called the new stadium “a really exciting opportunity from a sustainability perspective.”
“We’re looking at it from all different avenues,” he said. “A big piece of it is transportation planning, relying heavily on public transportation, and the ride share program.”
Figora said the new stadium would include environmentally friendly features such as “significant green space opportunities, water retention … conservation [and] redirection, energy effciency.”
“We’re still in the relatively early design stages. This is one piece of our overall campus sustainability plan,” Figora said, adding that the university is in the process of refreshing its five-year strategic sustainability program.
A question submitted online, “How will traffic be mitigated?” drew laughter from the crowd.
University officials said they have engaged neighbors in discussions around the stadium project for more than a year and have formed a working group in the Seventh Ward to “mitigate some of the historical challenges in that area.”
After a poll of residents showed that traffic was the most significant challenge, the university hired a traffic consultant to conduct a study, which the Northwestern team said is 75% complete. Early findings are that using incentives to maximize use of Metra and CTA could increase ridership and reduce car traffic. The new stadium also will have 12,000 fewer seats, which translates to fewer people and fewer cars.
Investing in youth and community
Omar Brown, who chairs the youth basketball organization FAAM, asked, “When you think about this project specifically, what does that investment look like for the youth?”
“We’ve been invested in the community for a long time,” responded Dave Davis, executive director of Neighborhood and Community Relations for Northwestern, who added, “The good thing about starting this process so early is that we have an opportunity to speak with all of our nonprofit partners.”
Davis said he has talked with officials from Canal Shores, the McGaw Y, the Evanston Community Foundation and Evanston Township High School. He said there are opportunities for Northwestern student-athletes, faculty researchers and staff members to build on past success with programs that help Evanston young people.
Davis said Northwestern will allocate a certain percentage of revenues to create a community fund that residents will be able to invest in local programs, some of which could specifically benefit youth. Davis did not provide details about the community fund, but said the idea came a Seventh Ward resident.
‘Do a little bit more for the City of Evanston’
“I think this is a great project, a very large project,” commented resident Paul Mark Wallace, who said he was directing his comment to Schill, the new Northwestern president.
“We would like Northwestern to do a little bit more for the City of Evanston, beginning at the school district levels, the nonprofits, and the Fifth Ward … This is a follow-up to [Brown’s] question about what you can do for some of these great organizations. … Sometimes we feel like we’re on two different planets.”
Referring to a comment made earlier by Schill, Wallace said some communities in Evanston do not feel that the city and the university are “intertwined.”
“We know it’s a great town, but we need a little bit more pure money to the Evanston community,” Wallace said.
Schill responded, “It is important that we understand that as a university, we have a role to play in the community. With this project, it will be a bigger role, and we take that responsibility seriously. It isn’t just that we want to get the project going. It’s that we believe in it.”
Schill added that a big part of his job is “showing up, showing that one cares, showing that one is committed, and then following up with material aspects also. I hear you, and I agree with you.”
University: ‘Support us moving forward in the conversation’
“Let’s try to get as much education about this project into the community as we possibly can,” the Rev. Michael Nabors, Second Baptist pastor and NAACP branch president, said at the beginning of the meeting. In an interview with the RoundTable before the event, Nabors said he coordinated with Atlas Strategy Group CEO Blake.
In opening remarks, Blake described the new stadium as “a place that can be a community asset for everyone in Evanston, from Isabella all the way to Howard Street.”
Northwestern Athletic Director Derrick Gragg also attended the forum and emphasized the “transformational nature” of the stadium project and its “vast economic impact.”
Gragg said he is sensitive to “the effect we can have on the community and our public schools – opening up the stadium for big high school games, state championship games and other activities – making it more multipurpose and accessible for everyone.”
In closing remarks, Blake said, “This is a conversation. This [project] is not done in Evanston unless you as the people of Evanston say you want this to happen. … I understand what the elected officials are going through in these reflections. …
“It is our ask that you would be welcoming and encouraging others to learn about what’s happening here. … You may not agree with every single thing, but all we’re asking is that you support us moving forward in the conversation.”