Citizen groups are trading blame on who is responsible in the wake of Beacon Academy’s withdrawal of a $500,000 gift and its participation in the Robert Crown Community Center project.
In an Aug. 5 letter to the City, Patty Abrams, chair of the Beacon Academy Board, a Montessori high school which occupies 22,000 square feet of space in the City’s Rotary building downtown, informed City officials of the school’s decision to withdraw from discussions to formalize Beacon’s $500,000 gift to the City and its future use of the Robert Crown facilities.
“Though deeply disappointing, we believe this decision is necessary and appropriate as dynamic circumstances have significantly altered the original understanding we agreed to what when terms of the relationship were structured with best intentions and in good faith,” wrote Ms. Abrams.
The school was an early sponsor of the Robert Crown Community Center project, its interest “predicated on our ability to utilize the gymnasium during immediate after-school hours, with a specific schedule to be determined when the needs of both Beacon and the City could be ascertained,” Ms. Abrams said in her letter.
“Through the course of contract negotiations, it became apparent that the needs of the City and its residents would require Beacon to adjust its usage in ways not contemplated when the terms of the LOI [Letter of Intent] were structured,” Ms. Abrams wrote.
“Although we wish we had flexibility to modify the gym use schedule, our need for a structured athletic program within our daily school schedule means we do not.”
In the wake of Beacon’s withdrawal, the Board of the Friends of Robert Crown, a nonprofit group founded in 2016 to spearhead community funding efforts, issued a release expressing disappointment that the City and Beacon could not come to an agreement on usage of the new gym and turf fields at the new center.
“But to be clear,” the Board statement went on, “the blame for this unfortunate turn lies squarely with the so-called ‘Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown,’” whose irresponsible attacks, full of half-truths and racially tinged memes, created this divide.”
The statement maintained that from that group’s first statement, which appeared as an Op-Ed in the Dec. 24 Evanston RoundTable, “their goal was to slow down and even stop construction of the new Robert Crown, a move that would threaten the City’s bond rating for all capital projects, not just Crown. As it is, the over-the-top rhetoric from these opponents have cost the project $500,000 in capital contributions and tens of thousands in operating revenues for the City every year.”
Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown strongly rejected that characterization, in a statement of their own Aug. 9. The group asserted that Beacon Academy elected to withdraw after the terms of the City’s agreement with the school for use of the public facility was brought to light through their efforts.
“The FRC [Friends of Robert Crown] are now blaming the messenger [Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown] for asking questions and shining light on the ‘deals’ made with private entities without consideration of the residents’ needs or feedback,” the group asserted, “and for questioning the cost and the financing of what has become the most expensive project in Evanston’s history.
“The Friends of Crown need to look in the mirror and accept that the withdrawal of Beacon Academy lies with the people who negotiated the agreement, not the people who brought to light the one-sided terms of the agreement, which were not in the best interests of Evanston residents.”
The Friends of Robert Crown Center announced in January 2018 Beacon’s pledge of $500,000 for the new Robert Crown Center, now going up at Main Street and Dodge Avenue. The money was to be given over seven years, the announcement said, and to be accompanied with prominent signage of the school’s logo on the wall of the new gym.
The Friends Board Treasurer Dr. Raju Ghate expressed gratitude for Beacon’s generosity at the time.
“It’s landmark gifts like this that have helped propel the new Crown from a dream to a reality,” he said. “This kind of thing inspires other donors at all levels.”
In addition to the pledge, Beacon had also committed to supporting the new Crown Center by renting significant portions of athletic and community space time slots over the building’s first five years, according to the Friends announcement, with the intention to renew for a second five years.
In the Friends announcement of the school’s pledge in 2018 it was noted that “as a stipulation of their gift and rental agreements, Beacon’s leadership requires assurances that no other community groups or organizations which currently use the Crown Center would see their access or usage hours decreased in the new building as a result of Beacon’s usage.”
In correspondence with Beacon before the announcement, Daniel Stein, president of the Friends group, acknowledged the financial contribution and other contingencies. In the Nov. 7 letter, he noted, “It is understood by all parties that this pledge of capital support is contingent upon the finalization of a program usage agreement with the City of Evanston and its Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.”
“We cannot negotiate on behalf of the City,” Mr. Stein said in an interview. “We can talk about what a great facility Crown is, but in essence the letter of interest is a wish list and it is up to City staff and voted on by the Council. We never thought that was our place.”
The Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown started as a handful of residents who formed to bring focus to the burden the $53 million project will place on taxpayers, with annual payments of $2.5 million to $3 million annual debt service over the life of the 25-year bond.
A number of the leaders had been prominent in a hard-fought referendum which brought large turnout in 2018, deterring City Council members from demolishing the City’s Harley Clarke Mansion.
Starting early this year, the group had been pressing the City to release details and terms of agreements with Beacon, as well as Northwestern University, Chicago Youth Hockey and others, to shed light on the City’s preliminary agreements with private entities on Crown use.
In a presentation on the project June 14, Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, responding to a question from Clare Kelly, one of the Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown, said that in talks with Beacon that the school was seeking dedicated use of the gym from 4:30 to 7 p.m. during the winter months under the agreement.
Mr. Hemingway stressed that the gym would be available before and after those times, and pointed to FAAM’s (Fellowship of Afro-American Men), a private organization, use of public facilities at Fleetwood-Jourdain for its highly regarded youth basketball program.
After Mr. Hemingway’s disclosure, members of Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown launched a campaign, with members appearing at public comment at City Council meeting, and posting on Facebook, urging community members to contact their Council representatives to vote “No” when the agreement with Beacon came up for a Council vote.
“If private entities want prime time, then they can pay for the building,” one of the group’s messages said.
“This rec center is starting to look like a private club with most residents paying the tab for a fraction of the space they will be using.”
A meme that ran with a number of posts depicted students of different colors in Evanston Township High School uniforms, standing outside the door of the new gym that bore the message “Beacon Academy Students Only.”
The Crown project should not have commenced, the group argued, “until the design, costs, pro forma viability study, as well as donation moneys and pledges were on the table for public view and agreements between private entities and the City for use of the
Crown Center were available and presented to the public.”
In July, Mayor Stephen Hagerty, fielding questions during a Facebook Live session, acknowledged that City officials were taking into consideration concerns citizens had raised about Letters of Interest.
Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie, who has been coordinating the Robert Crown project from the City’s side, said on Aug. 16 that she had contacted the school and had already put it on notice that she had planned to circle back to them after a meeting with other users of Crown, pre-school and after-school parents, to talk about alternatives.
“All LOI’s [Letters of Interest] I inherited from the City’s paid fundraiser, Michael Happ and former City staff. I view them all as wish lists, as they never went to Council for approval,” Ms. Storlie said. “I view my job as that of taking those LOIs and working with the entity to craft a legally enforceable document that I call a Use Agreement or Gift Agreement – or in some cases, both – that can then go to City Council for approval. I view the LOIs as a place to start negotiations. It is unlikely that anyone will get everything contained in their LOI. I suppose it’s possible, but I am negotiating the best deal for the City while also trying to balance the needs of the community and the needs of the entity pursuing the Agreement. It’s a delicate balance and requires collaboration among many parties over time.”
Ms. Storlie also referred to the FAAM program as an example of how such a balancing act could be achieved. Mr. Hemingway has also pointed to the size of the new Crown gym, twice that of the current one, as giving the City more options.
Clare Kelly, a member of Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown, stressed that Beacon was not their target. “To be clear, it’s not Beacon’s job to protect the citizens,” she said. “That’s what our City government is supposed to do.
“If we had not publicized the hours that Beacon was going to use the gym during after school hours, it is likely this agreement with Beacon would have sailed through City Council and Evanston residents would not have had access to the gyms from 4:30 to 7:30 Monday through Friday,” Ms. Kelly said.
“There was a total lack of specificity regarding hours of use of the entire facility in the draft lease agreement, usage agreement and the gift agreement. It is shocking that residents have been left in the dark for so long on the arrangements with these private entities.”
But some officials and the Friends of Robert Crown group felt the “over-the-top” tenor set by the group drove a wedge between Beacon and the City, eventually causing the school to withdraw.
“I look at it like this,” said Mr. Stein. “Beacon wanted to be a tenant, wanted to make a capital contribution because they needed the facility. They were being a good community member. It was not a land grab.”
Right now, said Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson, “The overt hostility and misleading information is so pervasive that’s it’s creating an environment impossible to work on any reasonable agreements or even expect to have an open and fair discussion about an issue.”
Peter Giangreco, a member of the Friends of Robert Crown volunteer board, said the factors that led to the breakup of the agreement go beyond Robert Crown.
“Many of the same people who, in their own words, want to ‘slow down or stop’ the Robert Crown project are the same people who divided Evanston on Harley Clarke, shouted insults at City Council members after the Albion vote, and have seemingly made City government more and more chaotic every week,” he said.
“Their tactics tend to be very similar: Shout people down at City Council meetings, spread half-truths and false attacks on social media and inject divisive rhetoric.”
In response, Mary Rosinski, a member of Evanstonians for a Financially Responsible Robert Crown, said they have heard Mr. Giangreco level those charges before and offered to correct anything that’s in error. “If we’re saying something wrong, tell us what it is,” she said.
With perhaps more City budget cuts coming, “we need an accounting of the sources and uses of all funds, including monies collected, paid, terms of pledges and gifts to date,” she argued.
“It is our hope that Robert Crown will be a success and meet the needs of Evanston residents,” she said. “As perhaps one of the most expensive municipal recreation facilities of its kind in the nation, we should hold our City officials accountable for its success or failure.”