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Crown Center rebuild shows new signs of life

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City officials this week said that — after years of delay — a project to renovate and expand Evanston's Robert Crown Recreation Center may again be on track.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons told aldermen at the Rules Committee meeting Monday that a subcommittee working on the project has come up with "some unique ideas for a new look at the facility without a large increase in cost."

Nearly five years ago the city sought to partner with a private developer to build and operate a new ice rink and recreation facility to replace the now four-decade-old Crown facility.

But that plan was eventually pushed aside after price tags for the new facility came in as high as $55 million and the would-be developers insisted that the city take the financial risk of any operating revenue shortfalls.

Instead aldermen agreed last winter to have staff try to develop a plan to renovate the facility at a cost of around $17 million.

Lyons said Monday that he believes the city can reduce its share of the cost by getting some of the money from government grants and much of the rest from a combination of a large donation and a major fundraising campaign.

He said the project, even with the multiple funding sources, would still cause "a little bit of a jump" in the city's debt level.

The city has been trying, with some success, to cut its higher-than-average debt level as a way to improve its standing with the major bond rating agencies.

Lyons said new debt issued this year is less than what the city issued last year. And he argued that as a "once-in-four-decades type expense" taking on some additional long-term debt for the Crown project was appropriate.

He said the current projected cost for the project is $18 million and that it includes an expansion of the gymnasium to provide a seating area for spectators.

Lyons said he hopes that final designs for the project can be completed by the middle of next year.

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