Strawdog Theatre Company to plan with city for Howard Street Theater project


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) reads from the agenda at a City Council meeting. Rainey, whose ward houses the potential Howard Street Theater, voiced support at Monday’s council meeting for Strawdog Theatre Company’s involvement in the project.

Robin Opsahl, Reporter

Strawdog Theatre Company will begin negotiations with city officials to occupy and help develop the potential Howard Street Theater, as the city searches for ways to revitalize the Howard Street area of south Evanston.

Aldermen unanimously voted Monday to allow the city to start negotiations with Strawdog to sift through the logistics of leasing the building at 717-723 Howard Street. The city has been looking for theater groups to set up at the potential Howard Street Theater since May and approved spending $40,000 on the building’s design in September.

By starting negotiations, aldermen have not decided to devote any money from the 2016 proposed budget, said Ald. Ann Rainey (8th), whose ward includes the potential theater space.

“If you’re going to vote against this, can you at least wait until we have something substantial for you to vote against?” Rainey said at Monday’s City Council meeting.

The city and the chosen theater company will now discuss how to parcel out initial funding. The theater will be developed in financial partnership with Strawdog, which will be responsible for raising part of the money to fund renovations and further construction.

However, Ald. Brian Miller (9th) said he was concerned about whether Strawdog could come up with the money for this project.

“I’d like to see how Strawdog is going to come up with capital,” Miller said at the council meeting.

Strawdog, a non-profit organization, currently operates on an annual budget of roughly $200,000. Rainey said although Strawdog has never raised the money it will need for the Howard Street Theater project, that is simply because it has never needed to.

Strawdog has occupied its current Chicago site, at 3829 N. Broadway St., for 28 years. However, the block the theater is located on is slated to be torn down and redeveloped in 2016.

Seth Rickard, Strawdog’s board president, said the group is putting more emphasis on special event fundraising, donations and grants. But the move is more than just a solution — it’s an improvement, Rickard said.

The Howard Street building and expanded space would allow the company to raise more funds considering the lack of space available at its current location is a major obstruction in fundraising, he said.

“While (our current location) has been great for its support of the arts, it’s been hard to increase revenue because of increased rent and maintenance costs that have put a strain on the company’s cash flow,” Rickard told The Daily.

Rainey said she hopes Strawdog’s presence on Howard Street would help improve the neighborhood’s safety and community by bringing in more people during the day and providing cultural resources.

“Talk about boots on the ground,” she said. “When you do economic development on this level, more people are out and walking around, more people are out on the streets.”

By Aug. 1, the city and the theater are expected to have completed negotiations on building design, distribution of construction costs and the lease agreement.

“Howard Street isn’t what we want it to be yet,” Rainey said. “Successful negotiations for Strawdog are important for improving the area.”

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Twitter: @robinlopsahl