The City of Evanston released a highly anticipated independent study Friday morning examining the economic impact of the Ryan Field rebuild and the public concerts that Northwestern is proposing to host at the new stadium.
The report, produced by Chicago-based C.H. Johnson Consulting, analyzed potential direct and indirect annual spending in Evanston from the baseline seven home football games, as well as what would be predicted to result from three concerts or six concerts. The university is currently applying to host six.
In 2018, according to the Johnson report, Ryan Field generated a five-year high of $47.2 million in economic impact, $2.3 million in taxes and 310 jobs. The study concluded, based on its own market analysis and numbers provided by Northwestern, that adding three concerts would bring the total economic impact to $66.7 million per year and 440 jobs, and six concerts would add up to $77.8 million a year and 510 jobs.
The report found that “Evanston and the greater community would benefit from additional events at Ryan Field along with the proposed rebuild.”
Small tax revenue boost predicted
The overall fiscal impact on the City of Evanston through tax revenue, though, would be minimal, according to Johnson. The city made $2.3 million from game-related taxes in 2018. With three concerts on top of the normal football schedule, Johnson projected tax revenue at the lower-capacity venue would be $2.2 million. With six concerts, that number would go up to $2.5 million, the firm said.
Those numbers are lower than the totals calculated in Northwestern’s own study by consultant Tripp Umbach, which used a reference point of 10 concerts, but the per-event spending figures found in the two reports are similar.
“This project presents an opportunity to help address one of the City’s major weaknesses, being that there is not enough critical mass to attract people to the City. Demand drivers, such as an improved venue, are needed to bring more weight to the east side of the community,” Johnson’s report said. “Economically to the City and to Northwestern, a larger concert has almost equal economic value to the market as a football game. It is reasonable for Northwestern to attempt to get some additional demand to cover costs.”
Ultimately, Johnson described the existing Ryan Field as a “poorly performing asset” with “insufficient use.” The lack of direct access to an interstate and recent business and hotel turnover have also hurt the city’s overall development, according to the report, which said new events like concerts could help revitalize the local economy. The firm also encouraged the city and university to negotiate a community benefits agreement establishing ground rules for the venue’s operation and the mitigation of negative impacts on the community.
But Johnson noted, as well, that Evanston likely does not have enough hotel capacity to host all concertgoers coming into town for performances, so some local dollars will likely spill over into Chicago and other parts of the county.
Report critical of NU’s parking study
Johnson reviewed Northwestern’s traffic impact study conducted by Kimley-Horn and determined “that while technically accurate in identifying the magnitude of the problem, it does little or nothing to mitigate the impact.”
Using Kimley-Horn’s estimates for on- and off-site parking and the number of concertgoers driving and taking public transit, Johnson reported that 8,645 attendees will have to park off-site for each concert and take a shuttle bus from their vehicle to and from Ryan Field. That would require a total of 147 bus trips in the hour after any given concert, with 2.5 buses departing from the stadium per minute and a total of 51 buses making three trips each.
“The choreography required while possible theoretically would require extraordinary staffing and marshalling at the originating end,” the report said. “This is especially true because with three garages being used to accommodate the parkers, there will be confusion by attendees as to which bus they should be taking. A much more detailed operating plan is required.”
Also as part of the services that it provided to the city, Johnson surveyed 24 Central Street business owners and general managers. Some touted the benefits of increased foot traffic and more spending by visitors, football fans and concertgoers, while others were worried about traffic, noise, emergency vehicle access and unequal economic impacts.
“Respondents were equally divided between being in support of or against the proposed zoning change to add concert events at Ryan Field,” the study found.
Some other Big Ten stadiums host 1-4 concerts
Johnson benchmarked Northwestern against other schools and stadiums in the Big Ten, as well, finding that Ryan Field has the lowest average football game attendance in the conference at 28,697.
As of right now, five other Big Ten stadiums – at Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska and Iowa – host concerts, according to the Johnson analysis. Ohio State has the most performances, with four per year. All others host one or two concerts a year.
“Evanston’s independent economic impact study confirmed what we have said since day one and what thousands of supporters have championed: that this is an incredible investment that will benefit the entire community at no cost to taxpayers,” Northwestern spokesperson Jon Yates said in a statement to the RoundTable.
Reacting to Johnson’s concerns about transportation and parking, Yates said the university has successfully managed events at Ryan Field for decades. “We have no reason to believe we cannot do this for six concerts per year that will seat approximately 20,000 fewer people,” he said.
Groups fighting rezoning say report flawed
On the other hand, in a joint statement shared Friday afternoon, the Most Livable City Association and the Community Alliance for Better Government – two organizations that have fought against commercial rezoning for concerts – criticized the “miniscule” fiscal impact from taxes projected by Johnson and Northwestern’s transportation plan that “is not grounded in reality.”
The two groups also identified what they described as flaws in the Johnson report.
“For example, the Johnson consulting team shows little knowledge of Evanston. The report states that the project ‘will remove blight from Central Avenue.’ First, anyone who describes it that way has never been here. Second, Central Street – not Central Avenue – is where the stadium is located and is the heart of our neighborhood business district,” they said. “Finally, the report fails to account for the massive external costs – the externalities – this project would impose on surrounding neighborhoods and on the city as a whole.”