Evanston residents fight to keep community center

Rebecca Cohen

Dozens of Evanston residents, some with children in tow, filled the Evanston City Council chamber with applause Monday night as aldermen voted not to sell or close the Chandler-Newberger Community Center.

In early June, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz had included the center, 1028 Central St., on a list of city-owned properties that might be closed, sold or used differently to save money. But after a stream of center supporters rose to speak at Monday’s meeting ­- each limited to 45 seconds because there were so many ­- the council voted 9-0 to maintain Chandler as it is.

“I’m certainly willing to instruct the city manager not to sell Chandler ever,” Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) said. Her basement is full of multicolored Chandler T-shirts from her son’s years of playing at the center, she said.

Victoria Smith, who has lived in Evanston for 53 years, expressed similar sentiments in her 45-second speech. All the Evanston children she knew grew up at Chandler, and her own children are now camp counselors there, she said.

“I’ve never seen any place that holds as much fun and organization and great skills and camaraderie,” Smith said. “Where are kids going to go?”

Smith was one of more than 500 people who signed a petition to keep the center open. Families for Chandler-Newberger, the organization behind the petition, also handed out “Save Chandler” yard signs and coordinated attendance at city meetings to discuss the proposal, group organizer Marie Lynch said in an interview.

Chandler played a role in Lynch’s decision to raise her family in Evanston, she said. She and her four children moved to the city three years ago partly because a community center in their former town had closed, and before the family signed a contract for their Evanston home, they paid Chandler a visit, she said.

Evanston already lags behind other Chicago suburbs in providing recreation facilities, Lynch said. The city cannot afford to close the ones it has now.

“It’s about preserving what we already have in order to keep our tax base strong,” Lynch said.

At the meeting, Bobkiewicz said there are few cases in which the sale of city-owned property makes sense. He identified Chandler as a candidate for sale or long-term lease because of its proximity to the Central Street El station, Evanston Hospital and the Frank Govern Memorial Golf Course, which might attract buyers.

At least one potential buyer attended the meeting. Paula Haynes, the chair of the Evanston branch of the Salvation Army, announced her organization was interested in purchasing Chandler, inspiring audible gasps among the center’s advocates. She called her proposal “a win-win for this entire community,” citing the Salvation Army’s 95 years of community involvement and its track record of providing recreation opportunities.

But other city officials were not persuaded. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl spoke out against Bobkiewicz’s proposal before the council’s vote, saying the children who play at Chandler have no other place to go. The center hosts after-school sports programs and activities such as free skating that help keep kids occupied and out of trouble.

“I cannot imagine that I would ever be able to sign off on closing Chandler,” Tisdahl said.

Ald. Don Wilson (4th) praised Bobkiewicz for having the courage to present a controversial idea. But the manner in which the proposal was presented, with rumors of its existence circling among residents for months before it was officially announced, troubles Wilson, he said.

“To me, what happened tonight reflects that this isn’t the way to do things,” Wilson said. “People are afraid that there are secret meetings.”

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) focused on what she called a need to ensure beloved city institutions do not wind up on the chopping block in the future. She proposed forming an advisory group including Families for Chandler-Newberger members to investigate how the center might save money.

“Unless we do something more, this same discussion will continue next year,” Rainey said.

Although council members ruled out changes to Chandler’s function, two other properties remain under consideration for sale or alternative usage: the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., and the Harley Clarke Mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road. The council voted not to close the arts center but will continue to examine the possibility of selling it to one of the groups that occupies it. A few groups, including Actors Gymnasium and the Evanston Arts Center, sent representatives to the meeting to express their interest.

And the council encouraged Bobkiewicz to seek out purchasers for the mansion, which the Evanston Arts Center currently leases. Tisdahl said she is actively trying to market it.

Elise De Los Santos contributed reporting.