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October 22, 2018

10/3/2018 3:24:00 PM
The Evolving Cost of the New Robert Crown Center
a Guest Essay By Pete Giangreco

In the Aug. 23 edition, the Evanston RoundTable charged that the Robert Crown Community Center (RCCC) project provided “virtually no discussion” of why this critically needed and widely supported project comes with a $53 million guaranteed maximum price.

As a board member of Friends of the Robert Crown Center (FRCC) who has attended nearly every City Council meeting where Crown was discussed, let me provide the necessary homework.

First, a little history. The current RCCC is Evanston’s most widely used public facility, with more than 100,000 visits annually. Since opening in 1974, this beloved facility has touched generations of Evanstonians from every corner of the City and serves as Evanston’s premier community center. Virtually every child who has grown up in Evanston has visited at some point, tens of thousands of whom made lifelong friends with kids from other parts of Evanston they never would have met without the courts, fields, rinks and programming at RCCC.

But as anyone who has dodged buckets catching water from the roof can attest, we have loved the RCCC almost to death. The City’s needs have grown and changed, and it was clear from the start that the people of Evanston demanded a new center to serve our community for the next 50 years.

Now for the math. The first outline of the project began in 2013 with a $30 million price tag for the new building alone, exclusive of parking, sewer, utility, storm water management and other infrastructure improvements.  Simply assigning generally accepted 4% annual construction cost inflation would grow the price of the building alone to $36 million, and adding the exterior infrastructure as well as soft costs like fundraising and professional services pushes the total to more than $42 million.

The new RCCC project enjoys widespread community support because the City and Friends spent countless hours over a year and a half holding dozens of stakeholder meetings, public hearings and neighborhood outreach sessions to build a strong consensus on the facility and programming the community needs.

One of the most exciting parts of the new RCCC is the public library branch that will serve neighborhoods in Evanston that are home to historically underserved families and children. Among the four elementary schools that serve the RCCC neighborhood, 42-63% of students qualify for reduced or free lunch at school. While 14% of Evanston households have no Internet at home, this percentage is far higher among families living near RCCC. Expanding the library branch’s planned square footage to accommodate more tutoring, mentoring, portable Internet access and homework assistance along with improving the childcare center were among the dozens of ideas that came from this lengthy public process.

Evanston is one of the few communities between Chicago and Wisconsin that has no publicly available turf fields. While Oak Park, two/thirds the population of Evanston, boasts more than 310,000 square feet of turf that minimizes program cancellations and maintenance costs, Evanston has none. Three turf fields were added to the plan, along with expanding the gym, adding a running track and making smaller improvements like sidewalks requested by Lee Street neighbors.

All told, these community-driven expansions added more than $5.7 million to the project, bringing the total to the $48 million estimate presented to City Council on Feb. 26.

Since that time, the project has incurred additional costs: unforeseen poor soil quality including abatement of lead added $1.5 million. The cost of steel due to the president’s tariffs went up $500,000, while an ordinance requiring 1% of total cost for public art added both excitement and $400,000 to the project. These costs together with increasing the contingency line item and adding necessary planning documents total an additional $4.5 million, costs which will be borne by additional private donations raised by FRCC.

We surpassed our $10 million goal last year and are working toward a stretch goal of $15 million. This effort will hold Evanston taxpayers harmless from these additional costs. In fact, the boost to area businesses from increased visits from customers outside Evanston should bolster flat sales tax revenues.

Here’s the bottom line: Evanston will get a $53 million asset that will welcome 10 million visits over the next 50 years for $38 million, because nearly 1,000 donors are contributing $15 million in private donations to build Evanston’s “New Crown Jewel.” No center in the country will combine these recreational and educational resources, improving the mind and body of every Evanstonian who walks through its doors. When you do the homework, the project gets an A+.

Mr. Giangreco is a member of the board of Friends of Robert Crown Center, an organization that raises money for the new center.

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2018
Comment by: Junad Rizki

While I believe the majority of those who have donate to Robert Crown have done so with the best interest of the community in mind, it appears a handful of donations have strings attached!
There appears to be a lack of transparency, in what has gone on here. What is starting to concern me, is these few donors are now driving this project in their own interest versus the taxpayers, children and other community members who will be using the facility.
It appears there was an active marketing campaign to seek these donations, with offers for future use and commitment of the New Robert Crown Facility. So now the question to ask how much of the facility future access has been committed to these donors? How will this now impact all the other users?
It appears to me, while these donations look large, they are not when compared to the total cost of Robert Crown, they are using their money to leverage our asset for their personal use.
It is also very clear, a few of these donations, come with a string attached, that the City must meet a schedule. Having gone to two of the community construction meetings, it appears this schedule is not realistic, and will end of costing us dearly in mistakes and problems which the taxpayers will have to pay for years to come. Construction documents were to be finished by the end of this month as started in the first meeting, by the second meeting it is now end of the year.
Looking at the Current mess at Fountain Square everyone should realize the City does not have the ability to run large jobs. Fountain Square was well over budget, and delayed over half a year. There are many examples of City jobs that are complete messes, most hided from the public, but staff recently admitted to three jobs, that were disasters.
The reason for the rushed schedule as outlined by staff at the last meeting, was the ice machine at the old Robert Crown could break and it will cost us $100,000 to $200,000 to fix. Hardly a realistic reason, to try to accelerate a $53 million-dollar project. While the City claims this is a guaranty maximum, price it is doubtful and likely to overrun, some of us think this could easily go to $60 million. Remember the City Council recently approved $85 million in bonds, clearly someone knows more than they are telling us.
There are many questionable things going on, the City Council approved this project, not even understanding the final cost to taxpayers, I believe it will be a 10% total property tax increase, of course the city is playing the game a little this year, a little next year and will not start to pay down the principle for five years.
Also, the donations, it is very unclear who is in control of these funds and how they are going to be collected, the fund-raising consultant contract was up last year, who is collecting the funds the city or the Friends? What is the relationship now between the city and friends and the ability for us citizens to see who has donated and what if any strings are attached to the individual donations?
Are any of the donations being used on other things? Given we have no ability to audit this, it should be concern to everyone. The current City Manager has been given authority to move funds as he chooses by the Council, given the huge budget mess, I believe he will do anything to make himself and the books look good.
Citizens should be concerned, this is not an A+ project as Mr Giangreco states but in the end, may get a failing mark!

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