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City takes NU’s money, but cuts off a revenue source

Takes money for hockey club's Crown Center use, rejects test of professional events at Welch-Ryan.

The Crown Center. (Barbara Freeman photo)

Evanston aldermen this week voted to accept $1 million from Northwestern University to let the school’s ice hockey club use the new Robert Crown Center for the next five years.

But they also effectively revoked an agreement to let the school test generating additional revenue by hosting professional athletic events at its Welch Ryan Arena.

During discussion of the Crown Center deal Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, complained that a letter sent to the university by the Friends of the Robert Crown Center when the school made the first one-third payment toward the agreement described the money as a donation — rather than a payment for services.

The Friends group was raising private funds to support the city recreation center project.

City Manager Erika Storlie said NU has typically only used time at the center valued at $75,000 a year in the past, and while it’s likely to make more use of the new center, it’s unlikely that use over five years will add up to $1 million.

Ald. Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said the facility has to generate revenue and NU is offering to prepay for a huge chunk of it. “Take the money, book the time,” Wilson said. “There’s plenty of other ice time for other groups.”

Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said the university is asking for ice time “super early in the morning or very late at night.” And with the new center, the city has an extra sheet of ice.

Suffredin, joined by Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, moved to hold the issue until the May 10 City Council meeting, but Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, moved to override the hold, and their motion carried on a 7-2 vote — which was also the final vote to approve the partnership agreement with Northwestern.

Earlier Monday evening, at the Planning and Development Committee meeting, aldermen voted to reject a staff proposal to extend a two-year test of permitting a limited number of professional sporting events at Northwestern’s Welch Ryan Arena.

The Council had approved the test to run through the end of this year — but the coronavirus pandemic has prevented scheduling of any events to carry out the test.

City staff proposed extending the test through the end of 2023, but committee members voted 4-3 to deny the extension. Alds. Fiske, Rainey and Wilson voted to extend the test. Revelle, Rue Simmons, Suffredin and Wynne opposed it.

Because the measure failed in committee, it was not acted on at the full City Council meeting, but at the Council meeting Wilson asked staff to present a revised proposal for a one-year extension to a future Council meeting.

Neighbors of the school’s athletic complex have long opposed any increase in activity there.

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