After several years of trying to reduce the cost to taxpayers of running city recreation facilities, Evanston aldermen Monday night appeared to be on the verge of abandoning the cost-cutting effort and instead start spending more than they had before.

The switcheroo came after it became apparent that the faction of residents who demanded “No Park Sale” had no appetite for contributing to a non-profit that offered to lease the lakefront Harley Clarke mansion and run education and recreation programs there — ostensibly at no cost to the taxpayers.

Tom Hodgman.

Tom Hodgman, treasurer of Evanston Lake House and Gardens Inc. NFP, said two months of fundraising had yielded only $25,000 in unenforceable pledges toward the mansion project, which its backers estimated would cost roughly $4 million to get off the ground.

Barbara Janes.

Barbara Janes, whose “No Park Sale” group claims to have distributed thousands of yard signs opposing any sale of the property, demanded that the site not be rezoned to permit commercial use. If a non-profit user can’t be found, Janes said, the building should be demolished.

Melissa Wynne.

Meanwhile some aldermen, including Melissas Wynne, 3rd Ward — who’ve praised the city’s status as the dining capital of the North Shore — claimed that having any commercial use of the property — even a restaurant open to beachgoers and operated by a non-profit — would lead to a plague of rats descending on the beach — as they pressed their case against leasing or selling the building for redevelopment by a for-profit entity.

While some aldermen were open to each of the cost-reduction strategies, no strategy appeared to have enough support to win a council vote authorizing it.

Don Wilson.

So a last-minute suggestion by Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, that the city spend up to $590,000 immediately to fix building code and other pressing structural issues at the mansion and start running new recreation programs of its own there appeared to gain majority support.

Aldermen did hold off a vote on Wilson’s plan for two weeks to give city staff a moment to try to come up with some ideas of what programs to run there and what they would cost.

But with the city’s parks department already projected to spend $11.3 million next year on revenues of only $5.8 million, and with some aldermen insisting that recreation programs operate at a loss to be sure they remain accessible to residents of moderate means, the new solution is likely to be even more costly to taxpayers than the mansion arrangement before the cost-cutting effort began.

Then the city leased the property for $1 a year to the Evanston Art Center, and both the city and art center deferred needed maintenance projects — but at least the city wasn’t subsidizing programming costs at the building.

The latest development appears to represent another defeat for the effort by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to trim recreation-related costs for the city.

Wally Bobkiewicz.

More than four years ago he proposed looking for new uses and less expensive operating solutions for three facilities — the Chandler-Newberger Recreation Center, the Noyes Cultural Arts Center and the Harley Clarke mansion.

Alderman quickly rejected the idea of changes at Chandler-Newberger and a lengthy debate about Noyes led to only modest increases in rental income and operating cost reductions.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl did caution, as Monday night’s debate was ending, that a half-million in extra spending, while it looks like a lot now, could be even harder to come up with in January if Gov. Rauner goes through with his plan to cut millions in state aid to the city.

Related: More details of Monday night’s debate in our City Council Recap.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Harley Clarke & New recreation programs

    Other than the at least $600,000 to repair Harley Clarke. Does the Alderperson have an annual cost to run these programs?  Will be running the programs at a break even point or continue to  offer at a loss?

    Council  needs to reconsider  getting proposals to privatize Harley Clarke and use it as an asset for Evanston and its taxpayers and not as a Liability.

    Council also needs to reconsider it policy of operrting the recreation programs at a loss and move to at least the break even point.

  2. Same old, same old
    While anyone with common sense would recognize that the budgets must be cut, the Council wants to SPEND MORE ! Where did they, supposedly, learn about budgets and that money [taxpayer’s] is not unlimited.
    This reminds me of the professor who called on a student. The student was not listening but knew the professor’s views, said “The answer is spend more and then tax for it.”

  3. Now we have a $ number

    Ald. Wilson said an estimated $590,000 would be needed to repair the Mansion.  Now we have a figure for how much those who run the Arts Center should pay—not with taxes but fees and private contributions—or the Arts Council should raise to pay off this debt.  Until then the new Center on Central should close.

    If and when the Center on Central does re-open, they should be required to post a bond something like the $590,000 to cover future expenses.  Same for the Noyes Center. This should be in addition to an 'arms-length' market rate based rent.  If the arts groups are really valued by the community [taxpayers] as much as they think, those who use/attend them should be willing to pay the cost.

    Perhaps a good idea for the future would be anyone running for public office [Council, Mayor, Manager] and everyone who has any budget responsibility should be requried to have taken micro-economic and corporate finance in the last 20 years—a year of college accounting also with not hurt.

  4. Searching for Unicorns

    It seems to me that if a qualified not for profit group were interested in Harley Clarke, they would have surfaced by this point. In my opinion, it is fiscally irresponsible to spend city funds on hypothetical programs when we have dire real needs.

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