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New plot twist for Howard theater

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The long-running saga of the City of Evanston's efforts to bring a theater company to Howard Street developed a new plot twist Monday when City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz announced that the group the city's been negotiating with since last fall is no longer interested in the deal.

Bobkiewicz told aldermen that Strawdog Theatre Company officials have told him they've found other rehearsal and office space — and so don't need the temporary lease they'd sought of the city's former police outpost at 633 Howard St.

And they're no longer interested, Bobkiewicz said, in working with the city on its plan to redevelop property at 717-729 Howard into a performance space.

Last month it was disclosed that the estimated cost of the theater project had roughly tripled again — this time to a minimum of $5.5 million.

In 2012 theater advocates had imagined they could create a theater in a Howard Street storefront for about $600,000. But by early 2013 that cost estimate had already nearly tripled to $1.7 million.

Strawdog, which is moving out of its Chicago home this month because the rented building is about to be demolished for a redevelopment project, plans to stage its upcoming 29th season at the Factory Theater on the Chicago side of Howard.

Last fall the company's need for a new home, and its long-established artistic reputation, had led city officials to conclude it was the best prospect among six theater groups interested in the city-owned Howard Street site and the city chose to negotiate exclusively with Strawdog to try to move the Howard project forward.

Bobkiewicz said Strawdog is still intereested in possibly purchasing the Howard building from the city — but it was unclear Monday night whether the city will entertain a sale without having a redevelopment plan in place.

Fundamentally it appears the city and Strawdog were unable to reach agreement on who would pick up how much of the cost of the project.

Strawdog's interest in the outpost site had derailed efforts by owners of the Good to Go Jamaican restaurant to move into that building from their current location on the Chicago side of Howard. That issue now appears headed back to the city's Economic Development Committee.

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