Evanston aldermen agreed Monday to have city staff seek out private firms that could partner with the city to build and operate a replacement for the Robert Crown recreation center and ice rink.

Evanston aldermen agreed Monday to have city staff seek out private firms that could partner with the city to build and operate a replacement for the Robert Crown recreation center and ice rink.

The goal would be to create an expanded recreation facility without requiring the huge capital investment the city would need to make to construct a new building on its own.

City staff has estimated a new center would cost $25 million to build, a major obstacle when the city is facing an $8 million shortfall in its projected operating budget for next year.

The existing center at 1701 Main St. was built 35 years ago for about $2.5 million.

The city has been considering options for renovating or replacing the building for most of the decade, and a consultant’s report in 2003 identified a variety of problems with the structure, Parks Director Doug Gaynor told aldermen at the special council meeting held to review city priorities.

More recently the city pursued the possibility of collaborating with Evanston Township High School on a project that would build a new field house and ice rink that could be shared by the school and city. But that effort faded after the school board decided it would’t have the money to move forward on the fieldhouse project until at least 2012.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz says its unrealistic to expect that a private partner would build and operate a new center completely free of cost to the city, but “it is certainly possible that the upfront design and construction costs could be borne by a private entity.”

Other communities have tried the public-private partnership approach to build new recreation facilities with varying results.

In Virginia, Arlington County has partnered with a subsidiary of Clark Construction to build a mixed-use development on the site of the existing Arlington Mill Community Center.

The project would include 192 rental apartments, retail stores, underground parking and a new public plaza as well as the new recreation center.

However despite Clark’s more than century of construction experience, including work on McCormick Place in Chicago, the community center project is now on hold because of the tight credit market and the old recreation center is closed.

And, in Canada, a public employees union cheered when the city of Edmonton rejected plans for a public-private partnership to build a new recreation center.  The union claims, in a position paper, that privately financed projects end up costing the public more.

But the National Conference of Mayors has praised a successful project in Boise, Idaho, that involved collaboration between the city, a private developer and the local YMCA to build and operate an aquatic center.

Bobkiewicz says he hopes to have a formal “request for qualifications” document for the project ready for council review by January or February.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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