Funds for The Aux suspended: Economic development committee files request for $ 1 million in federal funds for black business center

First in won’t necessarily be first out, as the city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) chose on December 1 not to recommend $ 1 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds until it have a better understanding of the whole picture.

Members of the city’s EDC weighed in a request from The Growing Season Inc. The nonprofit is seeking million-dollar approval for the city’s allocation of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help with the cost of renovating the building located at 2223 Washington Street. , the former site of EZ Spuds, to house The Aux – a black business center bringing together a number of black-operated businesses and welfare groups. No representative from Growing Season or the Aux spoke at the meeting, which was virtual rather than in person.

The $ 1 million requested from the ARPA-Economic Development fund would be used to assist in the adaptive reuse of the vacant industrial building in a project estimated at $ 7 million.

EDC members had heard at a previous meeting of the Northlight Theater, asking for a recommendation from the committee for $ 2 million in ARPA funds to support its move to a downtown space.

During the discussion at the December 1 meeting, EDC members stressed that they appreciated the proposals, but noted that the timing was an issue as the city weighed in the demands of a number of groups wanting to a slice of Evanston’s $ 43.1 million federal pie.

The Aux at 2223 Washington Street plans to bring together black-owned businesses dedicated to the well-being of the community. (rendering Nia Architects)

For starters, Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th arrondissement, said he was not ready to vote on the growing season request at this time.

“I am convinced that we need to put in place a structure on how we are going to spend our ARPA money, not only for economic development, but in other categories as well,” he said.

“In the interest of transparency and in the interest of engagement, we should not fragment ARPA money on a first come, first served basis,” Nieuwsma added.

“Our friends at The Aux know the system and are savvy enough to apply first, which is great. But I don’t want to make a decision on the money until we give all candidates an equal chance to speak up, ”he said.

He recommended that EDC members spend time discussing the process they would like to see in place to assess the various proposals that should be put to the committee. The process would help define “what our decision criteria should be”.

Council member Devon Reid, 8th District, next to speak, said he generally agreed with Nieuwsma. “We have to understand the process, and we should create a process where everyone has an equal opportunity on the funds.”

However, he noted, “We talk a lot about fairness. This group [The Aux] has been working on this project for some time. In this case, I think I’m comfortable – skeptical but comfortable – going forward. “

Reid added that he shared any reservations he might have about the project with the black entrepreneurs who run the business.

He said his main reservation “is just to make sure that we benefit these black companies and that we really progress towards our equity goals with it. And I trust these women, that they have the intelligence and intelligence to make sure they get the best deal possible.

Other members expressed views consistent with Nieuwsma’s, that the committee should refine the process before making recommendations.

A lot of money

“I recognize that this is a very, very commendable project,” said Melissa Wynne, Council Member, 3rd Ward. “It’s different. It’s exciting. It really brings new ideas to Evanston on how to support black businesses and how to renovate a building that is going to sit vacant for a long time because of its size.

“But I want us to have some kind of guidelines, requirements and matrix,” she said, “so that we can assess requests for this money in a way that ensures fairness and transparency. to all applicants as they arrive. cheeky. “

Further, Wynne said: “I admit that The Aux has been working for some time and, like Jonathan [Nieuwsma] said, was all ready for it immediately.

Nonetheless, “I’m afraid a million dollars is a big chunk of our money,” she said, “and as we’ve all said on several occasions, that’s an amount of money. one-time money in a generation we’re going to have to come to Evanston. So I’m reluctant to vote on this tonight without understanding or having a sufficiently in-depth discussion on “What is our goal?” ” [and] “What will our standards be to achieve this goal? And then, “What will be the measurement criteria that we will use?” “”

Northlight a similar case

Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, chairing the meeting, noted that Council members are expected to have a broader discussion of the ARPA award process at a special Council meeting, scheduled for this Monday. December 6.

In the case of that particular request, he said, “If the problem is, ‘I want to see what else is there,’ my comment will be, ‘Fair enough,'” he said.

However, he said, “with economic development, our approach in the past – at least the last two times I’ve been on this committee – is not to put the cart before the horse.

“Usually it’s the companies that come in – it’s all tied to the market, and then we react.

“The reality is that this business and all the other businesses,” added Braithwaite, “they come when they’re ready. And the question is, “How long are we waiting? I’ll be using the Northlight Theater as a theater that’s going to manifest as well. This is another million dollar “request” that we are waiting for [on]. We know they had the discussion. They have a track record. It will not be a surprise to me, and I will be ready to support him.

Render of the proposed Northlight Theater on Church Street (from City of Evanston materials)

At-large member Kathy Gallagher focused her comments more on the overall business need.

“I still feel like Evanston, compared to our neighbors, is pretty dead and sorry,” she said.

She said one of her main concerns as a business owner “is to see a lot of empty stores and not many people coming.”

EDC member Jeanne Lindwall, who serves as a liaison with the Town Planning Commission committee, said, like the other committee members, that she generally supports the Aux project.

But in the case of this group’s request as well as those of Northlight and others, she suggested that EDC members should also consider the likelihood of a project being successful with the injection of financial support that ‘they will receive.

She also said the committee “is really looking at the benefits to the community.”

“When Northlight came to talk to us, they talked about jobs, arts programming and stuff,” she said.

“Aux clearly has a lot of potential benefits for the community, and it certainly addresses long-standing equity issues,” she said.

Beyond that, she said, the city must examine the synergies that exist “between the particular economic development project and the other envisaged objectives, in terms of training, then other types of development objectives. non-economic ”.

By voting 6-0, EDC members filed until their January 26 meeting to follow through on The Growing Season’s request for $ 1 million in ARPA funds.