Plans for Welsh-Ryan to host professional events in doubt after council meeting

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Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th). Revelle remains opposed to a pilot program allowing Northwestern to host professional events at Welsh-Ryan Arena, which the University has asked for a year’s extension on after the coronavirus pandemic interrupted in-person events.

Joshua Irvine, Senior Staffer

City Council deferred on whether to approve an extension on a controversial pilot program permitting Northwestern to host for-profit events at Welsh-Ryan Arena, potentially jeopardizing the University’s plans to host professional sports and concerts.

Alderpeople instead referred the proposed U2 zoning district amendment to the Rules Committee for further review.  

The previous council voted 5-4 to approve a two-year pilot program in November 2019, which would have allowed the University to host six single-day events and one multi-day event each year, with crowds of up to 3,000 people outdoors and 7,000 indoors. The program was met with widespread opposition at the time, particularly from 7th Ward residents who lived in the vicinity of Welsh-Ryan.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic sank any plans to host professional events for the next year and a half. And with the pilot set to expire on Dec. 31 of this year, the University is seeking a 1-year extension to the amendment.

As in 2019, Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) was opposed to extending the pilot program.  

“Northwestern has tried for years to gain permission to host professional events and entertainment, and sometimes has gone ahead without city approval,” Revelle said.  “Northwestern has tried to go ahead with this for years, and each time the City Council has said no, and I believe we should say no now.”

The future of the pilot program largely rests on the verdict of the council’s four new members. Of the five alderpeople who voted in support of the original amendment, only one, Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd), remains in office after April’s general election. 

Alds. Bobby Burns (5th) and Devon Reid (8th) said they were open to the economic benefits for extending the pilot program. A presentation by Dave Davis, the executive director of Northwestern’s Neighborhood and Community Relations, projected an additional $1.4 million in revenue during the pilot period.

“We have a stadium that can seat 40,000 people,” Reid said.  “By not getting proper utilization out of this space we are leaving quite a bit of money on the table.”

But Reid suggested a hold be placed on the amendment until he and other new council members could familiarize themselves with both support and opposition to the pilot program.  

Reid’s comments prompted a response from Braithwaite, who contrasted Reid’s restraint on the pilot program with his advocacy for “big ideas” like mandating hazard pay for employees of large retailers and abolishing beach tokens.

“Several hours ago we removed $1 million in revenue,” Braithwaite said.  “Here I’m seeing an idea for $1 million in revenue.”

But a vote showed the council sided with Reid. Only three alderpeople voted against moving the amendment to the Rules Committee for further review: Braithwaite and Revelle as well as Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd), who also opposed the pilot program in 2019.  

Reid had one other advantage: it was past 10:30 p.m., and the new council wanted to go home.  

“Let’s get on with it and get out of here tonight,” he said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joshuajirvine

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