Evanston aldermen this week appeared to let their enthusiasm for making a group of constituents happy cloud their financial judgment when they voted to move ahead with leasing the former recycling center to non-profit groups that want to turn it into an indoor sports facility.

Given the city’s poor track record of accounting for the full cost of deals it enters into with groups hoping to do good for the community, they need to slow down and develop clear standards for such deals so taxpayers won’t be left holding the bag.

The city currently:

  • Leases space to non-profit arts groups at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, leases that fail to generate sufficient revenue to make capital repairs to the building.
  • Leases the Hadley Clarke mansion on the lakefront to the Evanston Arts Center in another deal that fails to generate revenue for needed capital repairs.
  • Subleases land for the municipal golf course to a non-profit that has failed to generate enough revenue to pay its water bill.
  • The two youth sports groups that want the recycling center have proposed a budget for the operation that appears to fail to recover the full rental value of the property and also does not appear to cover the long-term cost of capital repairs any structure will eventually need.

It’s also not at all clear from the limited data provided by the groups whether the revenue assumptions assumed for the project are realistic.

None of these issues are necessarily insurmountable, and perhaps in lease negotiations with city staff they can be appropriately addressed.

But the aldermen need to set clear standards for what they’re looking for when they consider leasing out city property. And not sticking taxpayers with the hidden long-term costs of a deal should be one of their highest priorities.

Related document

Presentation from sports groups on recycling center proposal

Related story

Indoor sports scores in recycling center vote

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Golf Course

    The Evanston Review reports the City has or is considering holding the water bill "abeyance through this season as essential to the condition."

    This is a good example of how the City cannot control the businesses it operates or provides facilities to as this EvanstonNow article documents.

    I suspect the golf course managers could have been much closer to paying their bills if they [have power?] would check that people playing on the course have paid their fees—or at least have an official spot check for paid fees along the course.  Anyone who jogs or bikes or even walks around the course, will see people enter the course [drive up or walk from housing] and start playing away from the first tee.   In addition the city is not getting the taxes from the fees that are not paid.  Other people may be able to document other bad business practices.

    While there are probably a lot of teens that use the woods for beer parties and then dump their cans in the trees [I found 15 at one tree last week] but I suspect their are many golfers who toss their beer cans there also [is beer even allowed on the course].  The soda and water bottles all over the course are probably not from teens [they don't need the woods to hide drinking those] but the golfers.

  2. Aldermen not so ill-informed

    I take issue with a number of your comments:

    First, you presume that the only reason the 6 aldermen (three-fourths of the aldermen present) was to make constituents "happy".  There are many more-informed reasons why they support the indoor sports proposal for the closed recycling center.  (See #'s 1-4 below.)

    Second, you state that the proposal "appears to fail to recover the full rental value of the property"- so you presume to know what that is?  The rental value depends on the use- and different uses require different upfront costs.  For instance, selling the site to a developer could cost the City millions of dollars to relocate the pet shelter.  What is the rental value if it were converted to a salt dome?

    Furthermore, the proposed lease of the closed recycling center is completely different that the other leases you cite:

    1. The nonprofits youth sports organizations have clearly committed to paying all costs associated with renovating the building for the new use- preliminary estimates are approximately $240,000.  Additionally, these groups have committed to pay up to $4,000 per month for costs associated with storing the equipment currently stored in the closed recycling center. Any long term building maintenance issues will be dealt with in the lease.

    2. The Salt Dome option for the site appeared to be a non-starter with the alderman because it it not a use that is consistent with existing surrounding uses- i.e. park, public garden, animal shelter, and retail. 

    3. The option to sell the site to developers also had significant obstacles: there is no imminent developer interested so this use could take years to become a reality, the animal shelter would have to be relocated at a cost of millions of dollars by the City, and there is some question as to the impact of this use on the public garden.  Moreover, any future development of this site would likely include a TIF and the City wouldn't see tax revenue from any development for years!

    4. Most importantly, the proposed indoor sports use would turn a closed facility into a vibrant active facility that not only contributes to the surrounding uses, but also brings a lot of money back into Evanston.  Currently hundreds of families take their kids to surrounding communities for sports practice and lessons spending a lot of money in those communities.  These parents would rather stay in Evanston and spend their money in Evanston.  This would support the surrounding businesses and contribute to the City's tax income.

    So contrary to your editorial, it is clear that the Alderman actually voted for the most financially sound, realistic, and best suited to surrounding uses proposal in voting for an indoor sports facility that will be privately financed.  They are no so ill-informed as you make them out to be.

    Greg Clarke

    Evasnton, IL


    1. Moreover, this city is

      Moreover, this city is already teeming with empty retail spaces. Converting this to a space that already has interested and funded organizations is much preferable to the blight that empty retail creates. How long should the space remain vacant until viable development comes along? We are already PAYING developers to market property and developments (Main and Chicago). This sports complex is win for the residents and goes hand in hand with the city's ultimate goal of making Evanston a desirable and thriving community.

    2. Recycled uses

      Hi Greg,

      A agree with you that the salt dome is a poor choice for the site, both because a utilitarian service like the salt dome would be better hidden away in an obscure location and because it appears the recycling center would amount to a "gold plated" salt dome when a more utilitarian one could be built elsewhere with a smaller capital investment than that represented by the recycling center.
      But the fact that a location that has not been marketed has not generated developer interest is irrelevant to any discussion about the best use for the site. If the market doesn't know it's available, of course you'll be able to say there's no interest.
      The $4,000 a month you say the sports group is willing to pay the city is far below market rent for an equivalent space, and the groups' only reference in their proposal to ongoing capital costs is "TBD."
      So far the city has apparently done no research to see if it could find a commercial entity that would be willing to operate an indoor sports facility on the site. So we don't know how good a deal the city could get if it shopped the property around — even for the same use.
      By contrast when the city looked, it found commercial groups interested in building and running a new ice rink facility at the Crown Center site.
      I imagine the indoor sports facility would be used. So are the golf course, and the city's two arts centers. The issue is that they are not paying their own way and the city can't afford to continue to subsidize them.
      Under those circumstances it is foolhardy for the aldermen to enter into another deal that will require taxpayer subsidies down the road.
      — Bill
      1. The Council made a rash move

        I agree with Bill.

        Aldermen did not properly explore all their options. The City Council should have at least put the recycling center on the market and see what interest they could generate. 

        If nothing happened then the Council could have fallen back on leasing the center to the local non-profit sports group.

        It looks like we won't know if the city could have landed a better deal for the building. It was a rash move to lease the building without testing the market. Just ask yourself, if you owned the recycling center would you do the same thing?

        Meanwhile, the City Council in these tough economic times has been gobbling up property near the high school and Howard Street with nothing so far to show for it.


        1. West Oakton Development Committee


          The City Council created the West Oakton Development Committee nearly 9 months ago to come up with options/recommendations for the the recycling center property.  This was a large committee chaired by Alderman Rainey an composed of staff and citizens.

          After considering every option they could think of, they came up with a report on the 3 best, but very different options.  City Council voted for one of those options.

          When you say "Aldermen did not properly explore all their options", it sounds like you distrust the process or you didn't have the facts.


  3. empty lots and community needs

    I thought part of the big argument for the Tilted Kilt was that unoccupied, unused space is a blight/causes more crime (a la broken windows criminology theory).  Obviously the city has to be careful and not give away land and building use, but what's the difference here?  Is it because it is not in downtown?  Is it because it won't be a breastaurant?  I get the argument that the City has mismanaged (or underutilized) other property they lease to non-profits, but what about the people that will shop and eat across the way generating taxes?  I'm not equipped to do a complete analysis of the revenue generated by keeping people in town when they would otherwise go elsewhere to do something, but please – regarding blight and unused space, how is this different?

  4. Recycling the Recycling Center

    Why not take a closer look at "Recycling" the Recycling Center on Oakton for a for-profit recycling enterprise.  I hope this is not a fait accompli!

    Respectfully submitted, Brian G. Becharas

  5. Does it have to be about

    Does it have to be about money? Why shouldn't it be about making constituents happy? They are the people who live there. They are the people who will use the facility. Evanston has the worst excuses for community centers within the whole northern and western Suburbs of Chicago. Robert Crown is an embarrassment.

  6. Sports center budget?

    While I think the idea of a sports center is fantastic I have to agree with Bill.  I don't believe the proposed operating budget has received even a half way serious analysis. 

    Yearly heat and electric of $9134 for that sized space, water of $83 a month, $417 all in insurance cost?   Way underestimated cost with line items completely omitted.  Having worked with lots of budgets this one is well intentioned but nothing more than wishful thinking and fantasy, though it does have pretty colors and graphics.  

    Establishing estimated comp rental rates isn't that hard and  this is under comp for the size of land and building.  But considering the community focused use that is not necessarily a bad thing.  But that operating budget projection is seriously wrong and if not addressed would show an unacceptably serious lack of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the City. 


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