Evanston aldermen Monday night voted 6-3 to reject a plan to spend nearly $1.7 million to turn two vacant Howard Street storefronts into a theater.

Aldermen who voted against the project said they were concerned that the projected cost had nearly tripled from original estimates and that the city was still negotiating terms of a lease with the prospective tenant — the City Lit Theatre Company.

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said she was willing to accept funding the project at the original estimated cost of $600,000, but couldn’t support spending three times as much “on a single project on Howard when there’s still so much more to do.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she wasn’t comfortable with the price tag — especially when it wasn’t yet clear whether the city would be able to reach agreement with City Lit on terms to occuply the space.

Alderman Ann Rainey, whose 8th Ward includes Howard Street, defended the plan, saying City Lit has been in business since 1979 and last year sold 6,000 tickets to its performances.

She said she believes the theater group is committed enough and motivated enough to make the Howard Street project a success.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said he’d like to support the project, but had heard a lot of unanswered questions about the project from residents of his ward and wanted more information before voting.

Despite suggestions from several aldermen that she might want to postpone the vote, Rainey opted not to delay a decision on the contract to renovate the space, and it went down to defeat.

Only aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, joined Rainey in voting for the plan.

Top: A rendering of the now-rejected Howard theater plan.

Related story

Howard theater cost estimate nearly triples

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Thumbs down on theater

    Thank goodness for rational thinking! However, very disappointed with Alds. Holmes and Braitwaite, please stop playing politics (with Rainey) and think of the City and the residents in your wards!

  2. Criteria

    What are the criteria for making these subsidization decisions? Does the City not have some specific guidelines or targets that must be met in order to justify subsidizing a business? It just seems like the Council goes with their "gut", makes it up as they go along and decides whether to support one project for one reason and another project for a totally different reason. Does the City go back after a year and say to the business, hey you either met or didnt meet your target and we are renewing or canceling your deal? Does the City get a share of th eprofit, a return on investment? Also, why are these kinds of decisions even under the purview of Alderman? Isnt there a City staff that runs the numbers on these kinds of projects in a more scientific manner? Alderman Rainey in particular seems to be capricious in her way of evaluating these kinds of projects. She led the charge against the indoor youth sports conversion of the recycling facility, which to my mind would have benefitted tons of Evanston residents, yet at the same time she supported a subsidization of a wine bar that would seem to benefit a few residents, mostly just the owners of the bar. I also find it kind of odd that she provides a link to the wine bar business on her website.

  3. Mayor tried to limit citizen’s comment on the Theater Project

    Last night at Citizen commnet the Mayor. interrupted my comment and stated I could not make a statement about the incompetence of city staff to mismanage this project. That is how the project went from $600,000 to over 2 million dollars!

    The Mayor stated I had no basis for my comment in fact. Who is she kidding?

    We have now wasted all the fees on this project. 

    The truth of the matter is the Mayor has no leadership ability. Other than she wants to pretrend the city did not  screw up.

    Wally was pushing to award the contract with a  tenant  who is totally unable to pay for the lease.  City was trying to spin this as a city theater.  What joke!  There is no planning here, didn't we just pay for a study for theaters in the downtown?  Wally told the council they should approve this and he would  find a tenant. 

    Ann Rainey stated the Lit Theater sold 6,000  tickets which is about $120,000 in revenue, Evanstonnow has shown several stories that this group is not turning  a profit, that is they can not afford this project, even at the $600,000 it was questionable.

    Whats interest why was this project allowed to go totally out of control?  Who was accountable at the city to manage this project? Who was accountable to keep it on Budget?

    The Mayor is a joke, she has no concern for the public money she is as incompetence as the staff who run this project.  Trying to cover up staffs incompetence, shows us her inability to lead.


    1. Give it a rest. Please.


      If you have all the solutions and know how to effectively manage a government and get results, how come you don't get yourself elected to office? Frankly I'm tired (and I have to believe many others are too) of your incessant whining on EvanstonNow about how mis-managed, stupid, and inept our elected officials and City Manager are. In this case you ranted on about a project voted down by 6 out of 9 council members.

      Perhaps a quote from the Father of Modern Medicine, William Osler, captures more appropriately what I'm tyring to say: "Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity, and consume your own smoke with an extra draft of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaints."  

        1. Good for Junad

          I disagree with you negative anonymous ninnies trying to put down Ponzi or silence him.

          Junad puts himself out there, publically and openly, over and over again to try and improve our town.He goes to meetings. He wants to get involved in an elected position. Maybe he has not won yet, but he keeps trying.

          If more people in this town actually paid as much attention as Junad does, my guess is that many would be surprised at how incompetent our government actually is. Instead, the herd in Evanston follows lockstep in with whatever the Democratic party says is best.  When everyone is thinkin the same, it appears that someone ain't thinkin very much. Except for Junad, who is always questioning and expecting excellence.    

             It takes a strong person to publically stand behind a unique opinion, even when the herd gathers together and mocks you with their loud baaing sound.

          Keep up that energy Junad. I appreciate your comments.  I admire your passion for trying to improve our city. 


      1. Theater Project was a total mess, it does need to be looked into

        You suggest my statements should stop, you clearly have no knowledge of how things work with the city   What interesting here these people wasted a large amount of money on architectural fees.

        You suggest I whine- why not?  The city employees involved should be fired.  Why?  They were suppose to run a project for $600,000 and it turns out to be $1.7 million.  That is they did not follow the direction of the city council.

        Where did these people assume the other 1 million or more would come from. 

        You did not go to them meeting that is clear.  Wally and Marty were going to borrow this money and it would go against all taxpayers in Evanston the TIF could not even fund it.

        Ann Rainey stated she was not an expert on theaters as a excuse, that is no excuse.  Did Ann Rainey tell staff to over run the project?

        I think this entire mess should be investigated. This is not about Whining, but holding people accountable.

  4. See the bigger picture

    This isn't just about the theatre.  The theatre is a step in bring more people to the area, and thereby encouraging other business to open.  This would be good for all of Evanston.  Since when did Evanston residents start separating themselves from the north and south. That's absolutely ridiculous!  If Evanston is going to change their small town vibe with high rise rental units, expanded NU facilities, then let's look at the city as a whole and make all of it prosperous.  The Evanston I grew up in took pride in being socially and economically diverse, and we were leading the pact, not part of the status quo.  I think Ald. Rainey gets the bigger picture.

    1. What Bigger Picture?
      I “hope” Ward 8 is a successful venture. I “hope” Howard Street continues to grow and develop. I “hope” that City Lit comes to Evanston and enriches the cultural scene in our community.

      But Please, Please, Please don’t spend my hard earned tax dollars on these “hopes.”

      Ann Rainey and others get the “bigger picture”. It’s easy to ask the City of Evanston to open its wallet and spend other people’s money. I didn’t move to Evanston 30 years ago to live in a “planned economy” where my fate was determined by elected officials who “know” what’s “best” for the community.

      My “hope” is that elected leaders would provide rules, regulations and a framework whereby hard working entrepreneurial people would generate and create new ideas and new businesses and risk THEIR OWN capital.

      The role of Evanston’s Economic Development group should be to tell “Evanston’s Story”, show business people the opportunities available in this community, make connections, and facilitate business formation.

      Evanston SHOULD NOT be a bank nor should City Government be the ones deciding which businesses “will be” successful. The Alderman and city employees don’t have that expertise, and if they think they do, we’re ALL in trouble.

      With the recent sweetheart deals with Ward 8, The Waffle and Chicken House, and the proposal for the City Lit Theatre “White Elephant” the City Government thinks they have this expertise.

      Evanston needs some Common sense and a sound decision making process.

  5. Misinformation

    I was unable to attend this week’s council meeting but watched it on the city channel.  I have read the comments posted on Evanston Now’s web site about the City Lit project.  I’m saddened by the mis-information that gets posted and I decided it would be helpful to Evanston Now's rational readers for me to at least state a few facts. 

    Fact one:  The City of Evanston has not paid one dime for professional services related to the development of the two projects proposed for the site of 727/729 Howard Street.  To date, the professional services and the related expenses have been volunteered and donated by my firm.  I understand to many people, money rules the day. To them it's all about getting and taking, not giving.  The fact remains, besides the purchase of the property, Evanston has spent "zero" dollars on this project.  I'd say that is excellent management by the city.

    Fact two:  Some citizen critics seemingly enjoy criticizing most if not all proposed projects, and the City Lit project was more fuel for their fire.  When things go badly, these critics quickly look for someone to assign blame to.  In this case, if you need someone to blame, you can blame me.  Hopefully knowing this brings you some comfort. We are only trying to do a good thing.  The mayor is not to blame, the city manager and his staff are not to blame, Alderman Rainey is not to blame.  President Obama is not to blame.  You'll have to settle for blaming me. I had the pleasure of working with many staff members and found all to be highly qualified and very professional.

    Fact three:  Over its 18 or so months of development, this project had many moving parts, opinions, and ultimately the expertise to finalize plans.  The plans are tailored to a specific user.  There is nothing elaborate about the building.  It will serve its user well.  The fact remains that a project like this will be the catalyst for more positive economic development along the Howard Street corridor.

    Lastly: Don't write the obituary yet.  I've checked the pulse of the project; it is alive and stable.  There may be more surgery needed, but we foresee a positive recovery.

    For what my opinion may be worth, those who approach the podium for citizen comment should be aware “You’re on TV”.  It’s embarrassing to watch “free speech” filled with so much hatred; some may want to consider reaching out for counseling.  There is already too much anger in our world.  If you continue to find so much free time on your hands, try doing something positive for Evanston.

    Thanks for your time.


    1. Mike thanks for your service – but I have a few questions

      No one is full of hate about the project.  The Mayor interrupted my public comment, making a silly statement that staff was not accountable.  I suggested by running a project over from $600,000 to $1.7 million dollars was not acceptable to the taxpayers. At the time I was mad, but more mad about how silly the Mayor continues to act, making less than logical statements.

      Mike it was nice of you to put your time into the project, but Ann Rainey made the comment that you hired consultants, you are really a nice guy if you paid for the consultants out of your pocket and not the Evanston taxpayers  pocket. Mike what is troubling here is didn't the city have a budget for professional service to produce bid documents? Is this how we run economic development activity, with free service from consultants like your self?   Mike you need to pay your bills, How much billable time did you put into this?  As an Architect, 5% to 10% of the total cost for the work ( $1.7 million ) might seem reasonable, for total support on the project.Looking at the Wine and Cheese bar I saw about $10,000 being charged on $80,000 of construction work although there were many funding sources. The Lit Theater is clearly more complex, since your are raising the roof.

      Mike its nice of you to take the fall for everyone, but you were the consultant whether you were paid or not, the city staff send this out for bid if it was that different from the orginal scope, someone on staff should have understood the issue and went back to council prior to issuing for bid and asked for the increased funding. As I said its nice for you to take the fall, but there are others here accountable.

      I suspect the economic development department of the city is another mess, It is my understanding the manager of the department recently resigned and there appears mostly to be junior level staff running the work.What is interesting to me, here does anyone in economic development including the director have the skill set to run projects?  Why? The Wine and Cheese Bar was a city of Evanston Project, since it was built with 100% tax payer money.

      Mike, taking the fall is very noble of you, but a city staff person had to be guiding this project along, so I would have to unforunately assign blame to that individual,  I am not interested in the name of the person. Wally needs to think hard here on how he is running his entire economic development program.  There is not enough money to even pay for this project,  I know for sometime you have been concerned about taxes, should the taxpayers of Evanston pay for this Theater since the TIF funds appear not to cover it. There is NO increment to cover the project and this group does not have the operating revenue to pay the city back.

      Frankly I do not think council members only took my opinion in mind others on this web site called their alderperson and asked them to kill the project.

      At Economic development I suggested projects should be monitored, Ann Rainey claimed that this was not needed, since every project is a sucess. This one does not look like it, Ann no doubt is lobbying the other council members right now, you are correct I know this will came back before council, and its likely we will spend 2.0 million plus dollars we don't have.


    2. “Fact” or “Assumption” ?

      You state, “The fact remains that a project like this will be the catalyst for more positive economic development along the Howard Street corridor.”

      Where are you getting your “facts” from? Or is this just an “assumption” or hope? Did you recently see the movie “Field of Dreams” and received some inspiration?

      We are living in challenging economic times. Money is tight. Taxes are high. (and going higher) We need to be very sensible in how we spend taxpayers money.

      As i stated earlier, if this is such a compelling opportunity why doesn’t the board of City Lit with a group of interested citizens go out and raise the money needed for this project? It’s easy to go to City Council and ask Evanston Alderman to write the check. Spend your own money, not mine and other taxpayers money.

      The other significant issue is the cost. In the span of 6 months we’ve seen the cost skyrocket from $600,000 to ~ $1.7 million. That huge increase doesn’t give me a lot of comfort that this project has been well thought out or researched. Will there be further cost overruns. What about the cost of running the theater? Although City Lit has been around for a long time, their financial situation is very shaky. What happens if they fold? who assumes the liability? Or does the City of Evanston then feel compelled to continue to pump money into the organization?

      There are a lot of questions to be addressed.

      It’s in the best interests of the entire community to distinguish “facts” from “assumptions” and hopes. We need to get answers to a lot of questions.

      A project that may have made sense for $600,000 needs to be re-evaluated when it now is going to cost ~ $1.7 million.

  6. 8th ward quicktopic comments on Evanstonnow

    On the 8th ward quicktopic the alderperson continues to state Evanstonnow is not factual, along with some of the 8th ward residents.

    Posting 27162  on 8th ward quicktopic- by Ann Rainey stated in regards to the Wine and Cheese Bar – " Interestingly, no finanical grants. Money will be paid back overtime"

    I suggest the alderperson read the commerical lease agreement – after adding everything up the city is out approximately $100,000 in giving a grant to the operators.   It is complex, but it adds up that way.

    That grant does not take into account there are no taxes being paid on the property, one of the apartment unit is not rented, and in my estimation staff spent well over $100,000 over their time on this project.  Not counting for the fact the city owns the property and must maintain it.  Also the city gave the tenents free rent for a year on the commerical space.( $24,000 per year )

    Maybe Ann and her 8th wardquick topic friends have a different definition of "grants" than the rest of us?

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