City Council allocates $2 million in ARPA funds to Northlight Theatre, facilitating return to Evanston

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Daily file photo by Bryan Lee

Northlight Theatre is slated to open on Church Street in Downtown Evanston in fall 2024 following grant fund allocations at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Lily Carey, Assistant City Editor

City Council voted Monday to allocate $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Northlight Theatre. The money will support the construction of a new performing arts center in downtown Evanston.

Originally opened in 1974 in Evanston, Northlight is a nonprofit theatre company which produces five shows each year, in addition to operating a range of arts education and outreach programs. The theatre moved to its current location at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie in 1997. With Monday’s allocation, the company is now looking to fundraise an additional $24 million to relocate to a new facility at 1012-18 Church St. in Evanston, as its current lease in Skokie will expire in 2024.

At Monday’s meeting, councilmembers and residents expressed their enthusiasm at moving the theatre back to Evanston and helping the local arts community recover from the effects of the pandemic.

“We are a city filled with the arts, and yet we don’t have (an arts venue) in our downtown,” said Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd). “I am thrilled that Northlight is coming back.”

Northlight’s upcoming construction project was originally approved by the City Council prior to the start of the pandemic in 2019. However, the theatre lost 100% of ticket revenue from March 2020 to August 2021, according to Monday’s resolution, during which all performances were canceled. Since returning to in-person performances in September 2021, Northlight has only received 55% of its prior ticket revenues, according to the resolution.

Councilmembers decided in January 2021 that this revenue loss qualified Northlight’s project to receive ARPA funding. The city has received $43 million to date from ARPA, a federal program that allocates funds to local governments for pandemic recovery efforts.

Wynne and Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) emphasized Northlight’s importance to ARPA’s mission of economic recovery, saying the venue would bring a “halo effect” to downtown by attracting more foot traffic to surrounding restaurants and businesses.

“The indirect benefits that we are going to see in downtown with the increased vitality, increased vibrancy and positive energy, it’s going to have ripple effects,” Nieuwsma said. “We need something like Northlight to really make Evanston a destination, to bring people in from out of town.”

Some councilmembers expressed concerns that the resolution to approve Northlight’s grant would not include a clawback provision. This would call for Northlight to pay the grant amount back to city government if the theatre shut down or relocated within a given time period after the allocation of funds.

Sarah Flax, the city’s housing and grants manager, reported the 10-year clawback provision first suggested by Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) would not apply to Northlight’s project. The grant will come from ARPA funds, which the federal government mandates must be used by the end of 2026.  Therefore, a potential clawback could only apply if the theatre closed or moved before 2026, Flax said.

Though Kelly floated the idea of adding an amendment to the existing resolution that would call for a clawback provision, Nieuwsma recommended that Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski negotiate a modified clawback agreement with Northlight in laying out plans for the grant. 

Wynne, along with Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd), criticized others for jeopardizing the proposal with clawback provision debates at the last minute following months of discussion and negotiation, with Wynne calling it “bad faith negotiation.” City Council ultimately did not include a formal amendment to add a clawback to the resolution, voting solely to allocate the $2 million grant to Northlight.

Only Ald. Devon Reid (8th) opposed the resolution in the final vote.

“I am having a tough time getting my head around voting for $2 million for the Northlight Theatre,” Reid said. “Their own projection is that in order for the state to realize a return on that investment, it would take 20 years.”

Following Monday’s vote, the resolution states Northlight plans to begin construction at the Church Street site in spring 2023, with the new facility slated to open in fall 2024.

“When (Northlight) comes back to Evanston, the community space that it’s providing is going to bring additional vibrancy to the downtown,” said Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th). ”I think there’s a really big plus for the community.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

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