Northlight funding research up in the air

Wally Bobkiewicz.

The fate of a research project on funding Northlight Theatre's proposed return to Evanston remains unclear after an Economic Development Committee vote Wednesday night.

The committee voted 4-3 to recommend that the City Council authorize conducting the research -- but only two of the yes votes, and all three of the no votes, came from the five aldermen on the committee.

Typically EDC votes are unanimous, and with a majority of the city's nine aldermen on the committee, approval by the full City Council frequently is assured.

But the proposal to research whether establishing a special purpose government unit to issue revenue bonds to help fund the theater project drew fire from many speakers during public comment on the proposal.

Most of the opposition was focused on the idea of having a hotel and residential tower attached to the new theater building and the prospect of the new development displacing existing businesses in the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue.

All the speakers said they'd love to see Northlight return to Evanston from Skokie, but none offered a funding solution to make that return financially feasible.

A few speakers did voice concerns about whether the new government agency -- which potentially could be created under the state's enabling legislation for civic center authorities -- would end up with eminent domain powers or authority to levy property taxes.

Bobkiewicz insisted the city was not interested in granting either of those powers to the new entity, but only the authority to issue bonds that would be paid from the center's operating revenue.

The authority, if it could issue tax exempt bonds, would create the potential for lowering the cost of borrowing to fund the theater project, compared to seeking bank financing.

The Village of Skokie created such a special purpose government entity to fund the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Northlight's current home. But the village has also ended up subsidizing the center -- funding that recently has ranged from $250,000 to almost $1 million a year.

Bobkiewicz says the city doesn't want to end up having to provide such funding for Northlight if it were to return.

Before the committee voted to recommend approval of the research effort, the members struck provisions that linked it to the Sherman Avenue development site and that would have authorized letting state officials know of the city's potential interest in forming such a new governmental entity.

Replay streaming video from the meeting:

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