The new president of Rotary International told local Rotarians this morning that he’s dug into the group’s archives to learn why it ended up with its world headquarters here in Evanston.

Rotary International President Ray Klinginsmith.

Ray Klinginsmith of Kirksville, Mo., said Evanston won out over Denver and Chicago for the world headquarters in 1954. And that in turn led to the group’s purchase in 1987 of its current headquarters building in Evanston, the former corporate home of American Hospital Supply.

Today, Rotary is the city’s second largest taxpayer and its eighth biggest employer.

Speaking to the Rotary Club of Evanston Lighthouse, the new Rotary president, whose one-year term began this month, said he’d delved into the Rotary archives and read from the minutes of board meetings held in the early 1950s when Rotary entertained the idea of purchasing its own headquarters property, rather than continuing to pay rent on office space at 35 E. Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, close to the location of the original Rotary club that was founded in 1905.

As an international organization, Rotary could be headquartered anywhere in the world. In fact, there was pressure from some board members in 1951 to relocate to Denver. Rather than continuing to pay in excess of $80,000 a year in rent, the board opted to look elsewhere in the Chicago metropolitan area for a suitable piece of property on which to build a permanent home.

Evanston had everything they wanted, Klinginsmith declared. It was quieter, safer, and certainly less congested than downtown Chicago, and a lot was available at 1600 Ridge Ave., at the corner of Davis, for $125,000. There were only 150 staff members at the time, compared to 500 today, and the board reasoned that they would fit comfortably in a 40,000 square foot building at a construction cost of about $15 per square foot.

As the years passed, Rotary outgrew its space on Ridge and purchased additional space some blocks away to house The Rotary Foundation, which raises money through contributions to fund Rotary service projects around the world. Then in 1987, when American Hospital Supply merged with Baxter and vacated its downtown skyscraper, Rotary purchased the building for $22.5 million. It assumed an $18 million mortage and paid the balance from the proceeds of its other properties in Evanston.

“When Rotarians come to Evanston,” Klinginsmith said, “it is for them a lifelong dream…like coming to Mecca. I think you can take great pride that Rotary International is headquartered in Evanston.”

Rotary members at the meeting said they’re puzzled that city officials frequently give the group credit for “voluntarily” paying real estate taxes on the headquarters building.

As a 501(c)4 fraternal organization, Rotary is not exempt from paying property taxes in Illinois. And although the Rotary Foundation could be exempt, the group’s leaders have concluded its operations in Evanston are so hard to separate from its parent, they’ve not tried to seek exemption for that part of the operation. In addition much of the building is occupied by commercial tenants that are subject to property tax.

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

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