City to Host Meeting Wednesday on Robert Crown Community Center

Robert Crown Center Evanston Beacon Academy

Updated Feb. 17, 2019 The City is hosting a community meeting this Wednesday, February 13, 2019 to discuss concerns regarding the Robert Crown project’s escalating costs ($53.3 million), debt service ($80-90 million, depending on bonds issued this year) and controversial private deals in raising funds. The meeting will take place at 6 pm at the Robert Crown Center Gym, 1701 Main Street, Evanston.

The chief catalyst to the project’s cost increases is its evolving scope. What was initially proposed as a $5.5 million renovation to the existing structure has grown to 10 times that cost for new and expanded facilities, including two NHL-sized ice rinks, expanded gymnasium, indoor running track, 5 to 6,000-square-foot branch library and three artificially turfed outdoor athletic fields.

Robert Crown Center Evanston Beacon Academy
Source: Beacon Academy

Some facets of the center’s design have been mostly well-received, such as the addition of a library branch and expansion of childcare facilities. Most contentious, design-wise, is the use of artificial turf on the three outdoor athletic fields and the announcement by a local private school that the community center’s multi-sport gym will bear its school name and logo.

This is Part 4 of our Robert Crown Center series. The next City meeting regarding the project is this Wednesday, February 13, 6pm at the Robert Crown center.

Part 3: Financing for $90 million+ Project & Debt Costs

Part 2: Timetable of $18-$53 million project cost increases

Part 1: Quick Guide to Bonds & Debt

Ballooning Scope, Cost & Negotiations

As private fundraising benchmarks have been extended beyond estimated feasibility, so have the City’s yet-to-be-approved deals with potential contributors.

In 2015, the City hired a fundraising consultancy firm, Community Counselling Services (CCS), to determine fundraising feasibility for the Center. The $3 to $5 million that was projected coincides with the $4.5 million cash-in-hand raised by the Friends of the Robert Crown Center in conjunction with CCS and the City. Friends announced another $7.5 million pledged, but those contributions include contingencies that may face difficulty moving forward. In July of 2018 in issuing its bonds, City stated it expected approximately $6 million of the project to be financed from the fundraising campaign by Friends in 2018 and 2019.

City Negotiations with Beacon Academy
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One such deal was negotiated in June and July of 2017 with Beacon Academy, a local private school, in which at least one alderperson has a personal and financial connection. The City is not releasing the terms of the deal until it has been approved by City Council, though Beacon Academy announced that “under the terms of the partnership, Beacon will contribute $500,000 to build a new multi-sport gymnasium bearing the school’s name and logo.” Beacon also stated the gym and athletic fields will serve Beacon students, with separate facilities housing “dressing rooms and dedicated work space for athletic staff.” Beacon’s $500,000 contribution would be spread over seven years.

Following negotiations, the City added a third turf field and additional interior rooms to the project design, tacking on an additional $4.4 million to project cost. Beacon-City letters of interest are not legally binding, so should citizens and Council object to the partial privatization of the public space, the City would have little legal recourse should Beacon pull its pledged funding.

Robert Crown Center Increased Scope
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Artificial Turf Costs & Controversy

Robert Crown Evanston
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Another factor cited by the City for the center’s higher price tag was the cost of new, superior infill for its three artificially turfed fields, following resident concerns and an EPA study that the crumb rubber infill initially proposed may increase the risk for cancer. Infill is used under artificial turf to provide cushion.

The City said it chose artificial turf because of the maintenance challenges of grass fields, such as canceled games and rain damage. Artificial turf is rougher than grass, and can better withstand cleat traffic in wet conditions. However, the texture and reduced cushioning from use also contribute to higher rates of injury, including “turf burns” and sprains. According to a study by the National Football League Injury and Safety panel published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the rate of ACL sprains are 67 percent higher on artificial turf.

In addition to health and safety concerns, synthetic fields also bear additional financial and environmental costs. On average, artificial turf is about 2.5 times as expensive over 25 years, according to studies by the University of Massachusetts (2016) and Australian Department of Sport and Recreation (2012). The initial financial impact averages 4 times that of natural turf for installation and purchase of specialized maintenance equipment. Ongoing maintenance is slightly less expensive for artificial turf, but is offset in replacement and disposal costs. While grass can regenerate, artificial turf must be replaced every 8 to 10 years on average, as the fibers break and wear away. The center’s 234,000 sq. feet of turf area would cost $1.4 million for each full disposal and replacement, based on industry averages.

Total turf replacement would also land 500,000 lbs of worn turf and infill into landfills. Other environmental concerns are pollution from microplastics and the chemical disinfectants and solvents required to break down pathogens and remove organic matter done naturally with grass. While synthetic turf doesn’t require fertilizer, it does need watering during hot weather, when the rubber underlay can reach temperatures as high as 117°F.

Project Financing

Because the project is primarily being funded through sale of municipal general obligation bonds, in which the City pledged an unlimited raise on property tax for repayment of debt service, projected by the City to double by 2020 and triple from 2025 to 2043. See latest projections here. Should the City sell the remaining bonds it authorized for the project last June, total debt repayment could reach up to $90 million. The City took measures to prepare for this year’s debt service ($1.26 million) through a series of staff and service cuts, and increases in property taxes and resident fees. The City has not made clear its plan for ongoing repayment, though it is working to shore up its current deficit.

Evanston Robert Crown Center financing
Source: City of Evanston 2019 Adopted Budget, pg. 46




Robert Crown Series

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