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 cover of the 99-page report from C.H. Johnson Consulting. Credit: City of Evanston

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.”

Residents hold up signs during a five-hour Land Use Commission hearing on the Ryan Field rebuild held Sept. 6. Credit: Richard Cahan

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.”

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. I should correct one error in my response to Mr. Orenstein second post. It’s a text amendment proposal that I was referring to, not the Special Use.
    Both for the readers and the Round Table editors: The figures I quote are from Evanston City records that I’ve collected in the 90’s and later. The documents are available on:

  2. So under Northwestern’s grand scheme, Evanston would gain only $200,000 in new tax revenues? (Wilmette, presumably, would reap nothing but noise, pollution and impassable streets.) All this so a ‘non-profit university’ can jam a for-profit mega-entertainment complex – more than half the size of Soldier Field – into a crowded residential neighborhood? $200,000 a year will pay for only a fraction of the new police Evanston will undoubtedly need to hire to deal with the security and traffic problems created by all of the concerts, plus the unspecified number of ‘under 10,000 attendee’ events, plus the 60 ‘community-based’ events on the plaza Northwestern proposes – etc. Time for the City to pull the plug on this absurd plan that has already cost far more than $200,000 in time, effort and community goodwill.

  3. What is the risk to Evanston without knowing the costs? Today – Northwestern could host 35 events of 10,000 without changing the zoning. Let’s see how such events can boost Evanston’s revenue.

    Parking will be a nightmare – and Johnson’s report confirms this. Further it does not address the 60 events of up to 10,000 people that could be ongoing throughout the summer. Northwestern does not plan to help with traffic management, or basically anything for these ‘Ravinia sized events’, and they have altered their traffic analysis, removing the 850 spaces at Canal Shores.

    What is the impact to other venues throughout Evanston? If I have tickets to a Northlight play, a Space Concert, or want to dine at downtown restaurant after the concert crowds are at Ryan field. Or I’m taking a Saturday class at the Evanston Art Center, where do I park, once their lot fills up?

    As the Johnson report states regarding cannibalization … “It may not impact the choices between football tickets and concerts at Ryan field, [but] it is feasible the impacts would be felt by another event venue.”
    The very real possibility of continual harmful noise– 10 am to 10 pm every day of the week from the 500 to 5000 attendee events Johnson’s report mentions as a growing trend could happen any day of the week. Decibel levels have nothing to do with size of crowds.

    We don’t know the true costs of allowing a Non-Profit corporation to create an entertainment complex, but we do know it is the City of Evanston taking on the risk. It is Evanston residents that may ultimately pay a high price.

    1. The cost to Evanston to have a Rebuilt Ryan Field is zero.

      Football games have generated costs as well as revenues for 97 years, nothing about that will change. We’d know by now if Evanston has been losing money from 300,000 visitors annually.

      So what you are really suggesting is that concerts will generate costs that somehow exceed revenues. The study conclusion is clear: concerts, just like football, are a net revenue generator for Evanston and a huge boost in revenues to Evanston hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, retail stores and other places visitors spend money.

      So if you’re suggesting Evanston is suddenly going to defy economic principles and lose money on an investment of zero, I’d really like to see your math. Maybe focus more on facts and less on fears.

  4. The decision on the new Ryan Field comes down to balancing the benefits of the stadium to Evanston, both public and private, against the harm caused by the stadium. Reading the report, it is clear the benefits of the new stadium would outweigh any negative impacts that could not be mitigated. Economic development, growth, jobs, increased consumer spending at Evanston businesses and increased tax revenues are the benefits. Noise, traffic, annoyance and inconvenience are the downsides. These can be addressed and mitigated.

    We all want Evanston to be the best city it can be, and we all do what we can to make that happen. People living on Ridge give up the use of their driveways so we can have Bike the Ridge. People give up street parking once or twice a month for most of the year so we can have clean streets that won’t flood. People living near the beaches give up parking and suffer noise, traffic and inconvenience (especially on July 4) so every Evanstonian can enjoy the beaches. It’s not too much to ask people living next to the proposed stadium to pitch in 6 days so the economic benefits of the stadium can be extended, not only to themselves, but to the rest of the City and its taxpayers.

    The stadium should be approved.

    1. Here are some of the FALSE economic benefits touted in numerous articles sent to this newspaper by proponents of the NU proposals. How many proponents have been hood-winked? How many of them signed NU’s petition not knowing the actual facts?
      We are learning now; there are only 200 extra jobs expected from the NU project. Moreover, the 35% local figure is not local to Evanston at all, but includes 3 counties, according to NU sworn statement at the 9/6/2023 Land Commission meeting.

      Here are some of the articles and with the statements contained within.
      “The simple truth is games will be played for decades to come, but rebuilding Ryan Field is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will create 2,900 good-paying jobs”.
      “The construction alone will create almost 3,000 new jobs in our community”
      “…over $200 million dollars be awarded to minority and women contractors and businesses may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
      “…generating nearly 3,000 jobs during construction”
      “…as well as subcontracting 35% or more of the construction project to local, minority- and women-owned businesses”
      “…prioritize the selection of local vendors for both the construction and ongoing operation of the stadium, where applicable.”
      “A $1 billion project has the potential to help build generational wealth for Black and brown families in Evanston.”

    2. In addition to 6 home games for football, there are 20 home basketball games, 10 graduations, and more events that gridlock our streets. Yes, we have street cleaning restrictions. Etc

      Parking and traffic are not addressed by NU for these events, contrary to what Mr. Yates suggests.

      What’s missing from this study is the costs that the City will endure for enforcing parking, crowd control, clean up, extra police. The list goes on.

      Rebuild the stadium, but don’t change the zoning!

      1. Perhaps the reason the study doesn’t address the traffic impact of basketball games is because everyone who moved near the arena since 1952 has known that events will take place over the winter months at that facility.

        Lots of residents and businesses make money parking cars for those events, sounds like a win for the neighborhood all these many years. And restaurants see upticks in business on those days.

        Traffic, in the context of economic activity, is a good thing in this case; events there have been, and always will be, additive to Evanston’s economy. The study points out that University events drive visitors to our downtown hotels which can’t benefit from adjacent interstate highway traffic on a regular basis because of our distance from The Edens. Visitors drive to our town and drive our downtown economy. Take away those events and the half a million event tourists and we’ll soon look like those abandoned towns along Route 66.

        Similarly, the traffic expected at the new Northlight Theater will be good for Evanston’s downtown. I suppose you’ll complain about that next, or maybe not since it’s not in your neighborhood.

        Nobody is contemplating a material change impacting Welsh-Ryan except that it is possible that one or more of the six concerts could be held there. That’s more money to neighborhood businesses and neighbors who park cars. Bring it on!

        Right now, here are the sports held at Welsh-Ryan: Men’s basketball (1952–present), Women’s basketball (1975–present), Volleyball (1976–present), Wrestling (1952–present). Surely, this isn’t a surprise to you. It is indeed a surprise to me that you’ve continued to live here and complain about it.

        There was, and is, no reason to study traffic impacts or economic benefits and costs of an existing building with known activities operating since 1952 and where nothing is going to change. It is what it is.

        To sieze this moment to throw Welsh-Ryan into the conversation as an argument against a Rebuilt Ryan Field highlights the desperation of opponents. They chose to live where they do, and rather than taking responsibility for that choice, they want, instead, to blame the University for somehow disrupting their lives.
        The University is the single largest economic contributor to Evanston’s economic well being, and opponents knew this when they moved here. Adding six additional stadium events in the summer months will be manageable, and any issues identified in the study will be addressed.

        Shame on you and your fellow NIMBYs. Perhaps what Welsh-Ryan really needs is new neighbors.

        1. Wow. Now we’re over on the round table with the same mean spirited and demeaning approach to neighbors with a different opinion, and spreading completely false and misleading statements about the benefits to the city.

          Apparently the hard working folks that chose Evanston to raise a family and chose the 7th ward to make their home, the biggest purchase of their lives, they should somehow have known ahead of time that NU would demand to change 100yrs of tradition so that the incredibly well endowed NU ($16B?) and a billionaire donor could run for profit concert events year round so that NU could afford a record setting mega stadium beyond their supposed budget.

          Drinking all the cool aid from NU’s publicity campaign without reading the actual facts (or data since they refused to share it) is just foolhardy. We now know most of NU’s touted benefits have repeatedly been proven to be shockingly misleading at best, and outright fabrications at worst.

          As for the false comparisons for current event parking… residents (along with many local businesses, churches, schools, and our largest urgent care hospital) already make many sacrifices for weekend football games each fall and for the dozens of additional smaller collegiate and HS events each year. Asking them to also execute the highly choreographed events to accommodate the 10’s of thousands of additional vehicles, parking and pedestrian needs in a residential neighborhood throughout the entire summer (and up to 60 extra basketball like sized events) is an enormous additional burden! As I’ve shared in similar comments sections before, the amount of planning and work that goes into transforming the entire neighborhood (and golf course and much of the local public parking) into a game day event atmosphere and parking lot is enormous. Many neighbors gladly do this for their treasured football team and student athletes. Most simply won’t (and can’t) do the same for NU to hold loud for profit concerts during the weekdays, school nights, and late into the night.

          As for the broad comments about traffic is good for the economy… let’s find an economist, urban planner, or traffic engineer that will state traffic itself is a good thing! Or just ask a laymen how they feel about traffic for the obvious answer. You completely ignore that proper design and planning is required for any such benefits to be achieved. Less than half baked plans will lead to a disaster for businesses and residents across all of Evanston.

          What’s a shame is resorting to these false comparisons and being so disrespectful to fellow evanstonians.

        2. Mr. Orenstein,
          you are incognizant of the fact that in 1973, there were 4,275 parking spots in the U2 District. McGaw seated 8,000: thus, one parking spot per 2 people.
          In 1976, 3,600 parking spots were left. McGaw seated 11,000: one spot per 3 people.
          In 2023, there are only 1359 spots left. Welsh Ryan Arena venue capacity of 7,000 (2019 NU’s touted capacity for the Pilot-concerts): one spot must serve 5 people.
          In 2026, with the new stadium configuration, the parking spots will be 1408, of which 20 are underground for the semis and tour buses, thus only 1388. That’s what NU testified under oath. However they also testified under oath that the parking will be the same in the proposed lots, as in the current lots at the U2 District. Interesting contradiction; but even with 29 more spaces, that is not significant relief for the parking needs of all the proposed events, and certainly not for the the mega-concerts.
          NU’s expert Mr. Lemmon testified under oath: “we’re estimating 5,400 to 6,000 parking spaces total, is what would be needed for that.”
          How can 1359 or 1388 be acceptable for a brand-new development, not a grandfathered renovation? The proposed stadium would be a giant colossus, more than twice as tall as the current stadium in overall circumference and a total tiny parking area. Less seats for football, so why that inordinate size expansion? I tell you why: to be able to host unlimited commercial events. No? The 6 proposed ones are just a way to establish precedent, so that in a few years from now, NU will come to the City and claim that 6 concerts cannot pay for the shiny stadium’s up-keep. NU will ask and will be able to expand that number “ad infinitum”. Just as it happened at Wrigley Field. NU is rich and can easily sue the City to get their way. They tried in the past to obtain unlimited commercial/pro-sport events. They failed. Why? Evanston Zoning law was the barrier. But a Supreme Court Judge will not be able to vote in favor of the City if the City changes the current Zoning Use and thus sets a legal precedent favoring NU.
          That’s why we are against the Zoning Use proposal change. And in fact that Zoning Use change will also open the doors to other non-profits around town to demand, legally because of precedent, to host commercial large events, and disrupt other neighborhoods. Be careful in what you wish for.
          Finally, to imply that we should have moved away, reminds me of the way a “benevolent” German officer advised my grandfather to move and abandon all his belongings, his home and business behind, to flee just before the Ustaše moved into town.

  5. Let’s Recognize a Trojan Horse When We See One

    Yes, C.H. Johnson Consulting’s report mentions problems with NU’s commercial ambitions. But, let’s also acknowledge that, just as the Greeks wrapped a fatal danger in an apparently appealing body, Johnson Consulting, like so many other discussions of this sadly divisive issue, wraps a potentially devastating threat to surrounding Evanston and Wilmette in visions of “economic benefit.” It’s time to realize the fallacy of such visions.

    It’s not as if NU’s stadium doesn’t already benefit the community economically (see Johnson Consulting’s figures for 2018). It’s time for NU and its Board, City Officials, and the Ryans to acknowledge that NU’s football games and the other presently permitted uses already impose disruptions not typically associated with R1 zoning. This being the case, it is only by a serious erosion of what constitutes R1 conditions that “economic benefit” can be thought to justify additional, inevitable and well-documented damages (busses, parking, noise, traffic congestion…for starters).

    Think what the available intellectual and economic resources could do for NU, Evanston, Wilmette if given a wider field of play.

    1. Lucid as always, John. The Johnson report speaks of potential economic gains (including very marginal tax revenue increases), but at least when it comes to the transportation and parking issues, admits the magnitude of the challenge to realize those benefits.

      “The choreography required while possible theoretically would require extraordinary staffing and marshalling at the originating end,” it says of managing parking, shuttling, etc. “A much more detailed operating plan is required.”

      Any rational actor considers benefits only in the context of a cost-benefit analysis. Here, Johnson makes the assumption that Northwestern will pick up any and every external cost associated with the Ryan project, and so recommends a Community Benefits Agreement in numerous places in the report. If Evanston needs to hire more police, make infrastructure changes and repairs, and yes, faces lawsuits over the breaking of noise ordinances, etc., will NU gladly pick up those costs? And who’s to say all the supposed economic benefits actually will accrue to Evanston businesses, rather than to corporate interests, including stadium vendors, etc.? Even NU’s representatives admitted that the women- and minority-owned businesses NU will hire will likely be regional, not Evanston-based.

      Evanston paid handsomely for a real estate development firm, rather than an economic analyst, to conduct a study that never considered costs to the city and its small businesses (half of whom on Central St. alone said they oppose the Ryan rezoning scheme). What additional price will we taxpayers be forced to pay should this vanity project proceed on such a poorly conceived plan?

  6. The Johnson study mentions that 9 annual concerts were held at 5 BigTen universities. Of these, 5 concerts occurred stadiums that were ½ mile or greater from the nearest residences, and the other 4 took place held at stadiums that were 500-1,100 feet from the nearest residence. ZERO CONCERTS WERE HELD WHERE RESIDENCES WERE WITHIN 500 FEET. Northwestern proposes to host concerts in a completely surrounded, family-dense residential neighborhood, 180 feet from the nearest residence and over 500 families within 1000 feet.

  7. I’m an economist in the 7th Ward. I spoke with the Johnson team: they don’t have any economists on staff. Their “economic impact study” largely ignores well-known negative economic impacts such as replacement/substitution effects and congestion/crowding-out effects, both of which severely reduce any net economic benefits from both football games and concerts.
    The vast academic research is clear: stadiums and events produce little or NEGATIVE economic gains for a city. Why did Evanston hire a stadium booster firm instead of an economic consulting firm to perform an economic impact study??

  8. From the report: “The proposed stadium will remove blight from Central Avenue.”

    Ah, what? Could someone tell me where “Central Avenue” is? Where the “blight” is? Did the authors of this report even visit Evanston?

  9. Why does Evanston only hire the most unqualified consultants? Is it possible that unelected officials such as Deputy City Manager Dave Stoneback and Evanston Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak have already decided they are pro stadium and want the study to fit that conclusion. Sure feels like that! First ditching Arup as an acoustics consultant because they knew that Arup wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear and now this…

    “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.”

  10. Go figure MLCA found flaws with a study that would benefit all of Evanston. I’m curious how MLCA would create an extra 30 million in economic impact a year in a city facing a 20 million dollar deficit? That is the increase in revenue with the new 800 million FREE facility and 18 HOURS(6 concerts) of music a YEAR. Do they have ideas besides not in my back yard? Nope. They a busy with their attorney trying to find ways to sue the city if the council approves the New Ryan Field(spending yet more tax payer dollars on legal fees). Or trying to find a technical flaw(Hail Mary) that can stop a project that will help everyone but them. Who exactly lives in their utopia they call MLCA? Not those who want opportunities for all.

    1. It’s too bad you can’t express your support for the stadium plan without going negative on those who have the nerve to see things differently. Regardless, the report raises big questions about NU’s plan and claims. If I were Northwestern, I would pray that our elected officials and voters don’t read it too closely. For example, it projects only $200K in additional tax revenue from six concerts — far below NU’s fantastical claims. It also makes clear that NU’s traffic and parking plan is a complete joke.

    2. Good job reading the exec summary page. Did you get far enough to find the typo on page 50 stating new capacity of 5,000? Did you read the part about the parking plan being completely ridiculous….or this section:
      “Large and growing population bases – particularly among individuals under the age of 25 – are critical for ensuring the success of sports, recreation, and entertainment facilities. Larger regional populations equate to more potential “drive-to” participants and locally based demand.”

      No growth in Evanston or surround area population based on their CAGR estimates. (see their chart)

      or any of the second half of the document that talks about Big Ten benchmarking with NU undergrad population being the lowest in the the group Page 64- Big 10 Benchmarking:
      Northwestern has the lowest capacity 61% other than Maryland at 59% and still has average of 39% empty seats. ( thus the move to further reduce seating).
      NU has exponentially lower undergrad population than other Big Ten schools. 8800 versus most over 30,000.
      The issues that are of concern are still unanswered:
      From their SWOT analysis:
      Threats • Competition with regional assets • Cost recovery • Existing hotel supply • Limited parking in immediate proximity • Noise

      It also clearly states that Evanston should have a written, enforcable Community Benefits Agreement, which so far NU has refused to entertain.

      And don’t forget that the bottom line contribution of all of this has been exponentially overstated, so that those who aren’t willing to dig deeper do NOT get a clear picture of the actual net benefit to the Evanston city budget.

      Also please remember that there is already a contribution in jobs and revenue, so you need to be looking at the net increase, not the total number.

      And if you’re still reading, you should also google the firm to see that their background is not in economic impact analyis, but in stadium promotion. Convenient.
      Hey Johnson Consulting- Still waiting for someone to point out this “blight” on Central Avenue (which, fyi, is in Wilmette and also is not “blighted”).