Amid skepticism about NU Ryan Field studies, Evanston seeks independent information


Daily file photo by Seeger Gray

As NU seeks approval for its Rebuild Ryan Field project, city leaders are working to contract an outside firm to lead a survey about its impact.

William Tong and Zhizhong Xu

With Northwestern seeking city approval for its Ryan Field rebuild, Evanston officials are progressing with plans for an independent study on the project’s impacts. 

NU commissioned two studies about the project’s economic impact and public approval. However, because many Evanston residents say they doubt the trustworthiness of research Northwestern published on its new field’s impact, the city has made it a priority to independently obtain data. 

The city’s Economic Development Committee unanimously approved Requests for Proposals to commission an independent study on the impacts of a new Ryan Field and determined a process for community engagement on the rebuild during its Feb. 22 meeting. 

“I just want us to make our decision about the project based on real numbers and not inflated numbers,” Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said. 

Plans to rebuild Ryan Field would add concerts and alcohol sales to the new stadium. NU is awaiting approval from the city for a special use permit for the stadium’s construction, a zoning text amendment to permit full-capacity concerts and a liquor license. 

In an email to The Daily, NU’s Assistant Vice President of Communications Jon Yates wrote the University has “no current plans to move forward with the stadium redevelopment unless the University can obtain these entitlements.” 

Under the Economic Development Committee’s plan, contractors would submit proposals for an independent study by early April. City Council would execute a contract by May, and the research firm would prepare findings for the city before July. Contractors would be responsible for analyzing the validity of NU’s economic impact study, additional fiscal and employment effects on the city and the local market for concerts. 

City Council originally planned to hire consulting group Hunden Strategic Partners to conduct this study. After discovering racist retweets from the company’s Twitter account, community members pushed the council to find another research firm, Revelle said.

Lesley Williams, 7th Ward resident and president of Community Alliance for Better Government, said she’s not surprised the studies NU funded show the Ryan Field project would have beneficial economic impacts. 

“There’s the expression about ‘The person who pays the piper calls the tune,’” she said.

According to NU’s economic impact study, performed by consulting group Tripp Umbach and published in November 2022, the rebuild would generate about 2,900 new jobs, $660 million in economic impact and $12.5 million in taxes for Evanston.

The Daily contacted the firm to ask about the new jobs’ permanence and wages, as well as what proportion of economic impact would initially go to NU and local businesses. Tripp Umbach did not answer. 

Williams said she was also skeptical about the reliability of NU’s January 2023 Impact Research public opinion survey, for which her uncle was called twice to answer the same questions. The community needs economic research residents can trust, she added. 

Williams also said NU should make broader direct investments in the city’s schools, social welfare and jobs programs, along with reparations for racial segregation in the past. 

About 56% of residents support the Ryan Field rebuild, while 29% oppose it, the survey reported. Residents in a survey subgroup who live within a mile of the stadium reported similar approval rates. 

Researchers from Impact surveyed 500 registered Evanston voters by phone, according to findings it released on the Rebuild Ryan Field website. The results have a 95% confidence level with plus or minus 4.5 percentage points sampling error — a measure of how representative a sample is — though error in subgroups is higher, the findings show. 

Marjorie Connelly, standards chair at the American Association for Public Opinion Research, reviewed the survey results after being contacted by The Daily. She said she had questions about its methodology, though she saw no glaring overall problems.

“Because the margin of error for subgroups (in the survey) varies … I would be curious about how many other respondents are stadium neighbors,” Connelly said.

Findings for specific subgroups could be unreliable depending on their sample size, she added, and the subgroup sample size was not publicly released. Impact Research did not respond to requests for comment.

Revelle said the Ryan Field approvals should primarily rest on how the rebuild project would affect residents in the stadium’s immediate neighborhood. She also said she would prefer more information about the environmental consequences of the field before approving NU’s request. 

“Maybe some Northwestern students would like to ask some questions about building a brand new $800 million stadium,” Revelle said. “That’s twice as expensive as any other collegiate stadium that’s been built in recent memory.”

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Twitter: @william2tong

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zhizhong_xu

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