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Elgin City Council Reups On Artspace

15 July 2011 Craig 48 Comments

The Centre of Elgin The Centre of Elgin (Photo by The Elginite).

Wednesday night, Elgin’s city council voted to provide another $250,000 of your money to the Artspace project. Hearing our seven fearless leaders describe this “investment’ that will soon be paying off got me thinking…

Just like The Centre, the Bowes Creek Country Club, the $700,000 softball stadium, and oh so many condos, I’m sure this quarter of a million taxpayer dollars will be put to good use. In fact, when the promised return on investment (30% according to some reports) comes rolling in, maybe they’ll even give us back some of the money we’ll soon be earning…

All right, let’s not get crazy; if they can make money this easily, I’d rather have them reinvest my share. If they are such investment gurus, shouldn’t they raise our taxes and invest more? Why would we turn down such free money?

Of course, let us not forget the added benefit of all of the good jobs this project will “create”. After all, turning a so-called eyesore into a vibrant art community takes a lot of work. This “worked” on a national level, so why not in Elgin?

Actually, they could be onto something.

I think a great way to get our name on the map and bring people downtown would be to construct an exact replica of the White House on Walton Island. That sounds like a whole lot of work…and that means a whole lot of new jobs!

Ok, enough with the jokes. I was only being facetious. Those ideas are illogical and absurd. But, when you put seven people in suits, give them microphones, and address them by the stately title “councilman”, instead of John or Bob, ideas like these somehow start to sound logical, and past performances are somehow forgotten.

Here at Elginite headquarters, we have divided opinions on the project, so we’ll be extra curious to hear your thoughts.

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48 Responses to “Elgin City Council Reups On Artspace”

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  1. Common Sense Clarence Hayward says:

    It rubs me the wrong way to know we are going to subsidize living quarters rents for “artists.”

  2. One Vote says:

    Bend over one more time, taxpayers.
    The politicians just don’t get it.

  3. elginkevin says:

    Apparently art is now an essential public service.

  4. mike_c says:

    I believe that the Artspace project is a major defeat for regular people for a number of reasons:
    1) At a time when the state was not making its payments to Elgin’s schools and social services, former Mayor Schock lobbied Springfield more than once to obtain funding for Artspace. Schock should have told our state politicians that Elgin’s prosperity is ultimately dependent upon the success of our schools. He should have left Springfield with money for our schools or no money at all! (Check out the Minutes from the April 14, 2010 Committee of the Whole Meeting).

    2) The city could be using these TIF funds for more practical purposes. We could be using the money to provide better lighting along National Street. This would improve safety conditions for Metra commuters. We could use the money to clean up the Clock Tower Plaza. Perhaps we could use the money to bring back a fireworks display at Festival Park (I don’t know if TIF funds can be used for events). But there are more practical ways to use this money!

    3) Some councilmen are moving forward with this because it will create 171 union jobs at a time when the Elgin Trades Council has a 50% unemployment rate. This just demonstrates the disproportionate access to power that the unions have. If there was a 50% unemployment rate for ‘regular’ jobs, then those unemployed people would be expected to get themselves retrained (at their own expense) and compete for a new job in a new field. Meanwhile unemployed union members have representatives that will approach the city and ask for the city to create new projects so that we can put the union members back to work at the expense of regular people–including unemployed regular people.

    At every level this Artspace project represents the total disregard for the values and needs of regular people.

  5. RS says:

    A few handy links:

    http://couriernews.suntimes.com/news/6463883-418/more-tif-money-for-elgins-artspace-project.html

    http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20110712/news/707129955/

    http://www.artspaceelgin.org/

    http://triblocal.com/elgin/2011/07/15/city-increases-contribution-to-artist-housing/

    It sounds like a great project to me, but admittedly I am not familiar with the terms of the deal or what covenants may be attached to the financing. I assumed that if the city owned the property it would have the ability to sell it at some point if necessary, but the federal money probably comes with strings attached. I also don’t know what role the main ArtSpace organization will continue to take and what fees they will charge the city on a regular basis going forward. Presumably they will act as property manager.

    If the ArtSpace project itself is likely to result in a net loss each year that the city would have to subsidize I would oppose it. If on the other hand, the only money going in is the $1M and the property contribution, I think it’s a very good deal. Turning down $11M in federal money is something you should do for only very good reasons, and I don’t see those reasons here.

    It’s an attractive project to me for multiple reasons. One is that it will be a great example of adaptive reuse where a historical building is preserved and modernized through an addition, rather than being torn down and replaced. The rendering on the ArtSpace web page shows an attractive addition in a contemporary style that is unusual to see in Elgin but which is much needed.

    The project also puts a significant number of residents in the downtown, which has long been a goal of the city and a proven component of downtown revitalization in other places. The housing is rental, which will provide a good balance where recent projects in downtown have all been condos.

    That the targeted demographic is artists is a further plus as they are part of the creative class and will also attract other people and organizations.

    I do question the decision to include retail space. In my opinion, any retail activities could be conducted in the myriad empty storefronts in downtown Elgin, including right across the street from the project. I would prefer and encourage the ArtSpace project to instead use that space to create a public arts center along the lines of Lill Street Art Center in Chicago (http://www.lillstreet.com/).

    • mike_c says:

      “That the targeted demographic is artists is a further plus as they are part of the creative CLASS and will also attract other people and organizations.”

      Couldn’t the same be said of Star Trek fans. I would make a case that Star Trek fans would be even better for the downtown economy. Stereotypically Trekkies love technological gadgets; they drink lots of coffee; and they are known to enjoy Asian cuisine. Plus, you could open up a costume shop across the street and make a fortune!

      In all seriousness though, the only reason that this project is getting funded is because it will bring in a better class of people–artists. I guess the city doesn’t think that it is immoral to hierarchically classify people according to their hobbies or occupation. Ironically the city IS morally opposed to classifying breeds of dogs as dangerous. (I am not suggesting that we bring BSL back. I’m just pointing out a logical inconsistency).

      I don’t believe that one’s occupation or hobby should be considered when investing public funds.

    • Craig says:

      RS, you should move in! ;)

  6. Julie Schmitt says:

    On the surface, this DOES look like the City of Elgin is just throwing our money away…but look at the bigger issue.

    What does Elgin have downtown? No shopping. Very few restaurants. 1 theatre (Hemmens), and it torn the other down despite having 6+ theatre groups in the City. Empty storefronts. LOTS of empty storefronts. Historic Architecture. BAD school district. So what reason is there for anyone to spend time in downtown Elgin. Really none. So I believe, IF the City can find someone talented to market/see this concept, that it is a good investment. The City of Elgin can make a name for itself and become a draw for artists, and the people who buy art, and the people who hang around with artists.

    Who knows, in a few years, there could be more than 1 gallery downtown, there might even be boutique shops and bakeries and places for people to patron in downtown Elgin!

    • One Vote says:

      Then again, maybe it’ll be another Centre…or Bandits field…or the money pit rehabs of foreclosed homes.
      When was the last time Elgin had a successful public project?

    • Craig says:

      Julie, I’m not saying it can’t be a success in terms of bringing people downtown. Even if it were to bring more activity to the area, the cost is always forgotten. The money, whether from Elgin’s funds or “grants” (other taxpayer money), always comes from somewhere, and that means less for whoever paid for it.

      Additionally, government has proven itself over and over again to be extremely inefficient in attempts to create wealth.

      In terms of both results and philosophically, I am opposed to projects of this nature regardless of any short term results.

      That said, I will bet you one jelly donut that this project doesn’t work out as planned. (If you win, we can get it from one of the new bakeries frequented by the artists, otherwise I guess we’re going to Herb’s!)

      • Common Sense Clarence Hayward says:

        Don’t forget Roll and Donut on Dundee Ave. just South of
        Tollway has outstanding Danish that melts in your mouth.

        • RS says:

          As long as I’m trying to get fit, talk of delicious donuts and danish is strictly forbidden on The Elginite.

      • RS says:

        The city has never publicized any useful numbers in any project. In this case, they (or just the papers?) are saying it will generate $1.4M in TIF money, which is a meaningless statement.

        It will be up to the independent members of the budget task force to calculate a true IRR on the project. Otherwise we really won’t have a sense of whether it’s successful or not for the city on a purely financial basis.

        • Craig says:

          The accounting the city council puts forth is nearly always deceptive when it comes to projects like this.

          For instance, they standard line on the Bowes Creek CC was that it’s coming from golf course revenue so it’s “self sustaining”. This doesn’t take into account either the cost of capital of holding onto the giant piece of land or the lost revenue from property tax if they were to sell it.

          • RS says:

            That definitely applies here as well. It’s important in all projects to keep in mind what the alternatives are. In this case, the main alternative is for the city to sell the property. If it does that, it gets a few million dollars upfront (which could be invested in securities) and is able to start collecting property tax.

            During the Schock years, millions of dollars of property was taken off the tax rolls. The city will need to look at that in the future as it tries to address budget problems.

    • mike_c says:

      I kind of feel like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. People who value family, education, and safety are being relegated to the Forbidden Zone while a better class of ape has established dominance–artists (chimps), people who buy art (orangutans), and people who hang around with artists (gorillas). Hopefully I will not be held captive by a clan of telepathic super-humans.

  7. Terry Gavin says:

    This particular project unlike the disasters of the Rec. Ctr. or the Bandits softball field doesn’t come from monies out of the General Fund it comes from the TIF funds. TIF funds must be spent in the TIF District for the benefit of that district.

    While I’m dubious of the wisdom of spending any additional dollars on this project due to the city’s past record of failures this project might actually work. The building is being brought up to today’s standards & modernized which will make it more marketable at some future date if this project fails. If the project succeeds then it will generate revenues for downtown business’ which is sorely needed.

    Leveraging these TIF monies for the greater good of downtown & the city at large could be a huge plus. It’s always easy to be a nay sayer but what other projects in this TIF District are more worthy?

    • Crysta says:

      The TIF district is much, much larger than the city typically lets on. While the impression is that it encompasses just the DNA fiefdom, it really extends to both sides of the river and covers the entire central business district and entry corridors. (Current map: http://www.cityofelgin.org/DocumentView.aspx?DID=325) Downtown itself is looking pretty good - the streetscaping, bricks, etc, however controversial, do lend an air about the place. Rather than sinking money into an artists colony - and I agree with Mike’s comments above about singling out an occupation or class - why not use some of that money to clean up the corridors that flow into downtown? Drive down 31 and across National Street - the route that signs suggest people take to the casino - and tell me if you were from out of town, what would your impression be? Would you want to spend time in the city beyond your hours at the boat? Clock Tower Plaza and the National Street Corridor need some heavy attention - the city and RTA did a huge study last year that reiterated that (available from the city’s homepage). Why not divert TIF funds to those projects? While streetscaping and such don’t garner headlines like an artist colony might, they improve things for both citizens and visitors alike.

      • RS says:

        That’s a good point, Crysta. The “downtown” TIF is huge. For some reason I had thought a separate TIF covered the Dundee corridor. The Dundee Summit TIF threw me off, but the map shows it’s just a tiny island within the Central (downtown) TIF.

      • Common Sense Clarence Hayward says:

        I don’t know if anyone remembers this but on Dundee Ave. right at I90 they put in some decorative lane medians with landscaping etc. Part of the etc. was cement looking bowling balls about every 20 ft. If you were entering the city from that way you might think Elgin was the bowling ball capital of the United States.

        I don’t know if someone realized how foolish they looked and took them down or if someone stole them.

        • One Vote says:

          My guess is that they realized these concrete bowling balls are a hazard and took them down.
          More importantly, these were supposed to be gateway improvements, but they are eyesores. The pavers are buckling and the plants look like weeds. And the brick monument at the curb is incorrect now that Sherman is gone.
          Not to mention that the intersection is torn up again.
          So much for a gateway. Then again, reality sets in rather quickly once you travel down Dundee Ave.

        • paul says:

          What does Dundee Ave have to do with the artspace project????

          Never mind.

      • Craig says:

        Wow, that’s very interesting. I had no idea. By the way they discussed it, it sounded more like a 2 block radius around the building in question.

        I was just thinking the same thing when I was driving from 90 towards home from 25, which happens to be partially the same way someone would be going to if they were going to the boat.

        There’s no doubt that this money could be used to at least fix roads sometime in the future.

        But you said it, “streetscaping doesn’t garner headlines”. Politicians love to point to the big monuments they created as their legacy. So much for Kaptain’s promise to build “community not things”.

        • paul says:

          Craig. Who created the TIF district!
          Evidently God himself created it and wrote it in stone, given the way the elected politicians use as an excuse to piss away $3.5 million of tax money as if that is what it is for and it could not be used for anything else!
          On the other hand - that multi-million dollar parking deck on Fulton street needs someone to park in it.

    • Craig says:

      Terry, I am surprised at your reaction. This is exactly the type of spending that 7 guys/gals should not be making with your money just because they’re sitting on a dias.

      If they’re going to build roads fine. If not, give the money back to the taxpayers. If we want an artist colony, we’ll build it.

      • Terry Gavin says:

        Btw Craig unfortunatly every once in a while government can help the private sector succeed! I know this sounds absurd on the surface but true. The fact is in Elgin you need a honest mayor & independant council to make good decisions on spending the peoples money! Otherwise you get what we’ve had for the last 12 years, plain & simple bad govt….

        • Craig says:

          I think when it comes to the Arts, the people can decide how to spend their money well enough. Beyond who will spend it “best”, it’s also a matter what’s “right” as well…

    • mike_c says:

      I completely agree Crysta. The best chance that the city has for reviving the downtown is to obtain more support from the surrounding neighborhoods. It is difficult to get that support when the funds continue to funnel to the same area of the TIF.

      Also, the city has a $4.5M shortfall in the General Fund. This deficiency would not exist if the city properly charged things to it TIF. If the city used TIF funds to pay for services specific to the downtown and to pay for the service agreement with DNA ($270k/2year), then we might not be facing this budget crisis. But properly charging things to the TIF would require the city to drop many of their pet projects such as Artspace.

      • RS says:

        Mike, are you sure Illinois law allows neighborhood organizations to be funded with TIF money?

        • Crysta says:

          I don’t read it as funding neighborhood orgs with TIF funds (but I’ll let Mike confirm) - rather, I read it as spending funds in the TIF district beyond the few-block downtown core, including in the neighborhoods that are included within the TIF boundaries. As a neighborhood association we operate on a shoestring budget. Sure, we would do more if we had more funds, but our primary goal is improving the quality of life for our citizens - something that TIF funds can enable via infrastructure improvements in the area. In SWAN’s case, that includes our very tiny commercial strip at State/National and the routes that connect our neighborhood with the downtown core.

      • One Vote says:

        All I know is that they are in a TIF-spending frenzy. You don’t dump all that cash into Cadillac-quality streetscaping unless you are…well…dumping cash.

      • mike_c says:

        No, I am not suggesting that the city use TIF money to fund neighborhood groups. I meant to indicate that many people with expendable income choose to live in stable neighborhoods. If the city cannot make the neighborhoods surrounding our downtown attractive to people with more expendable income, then it is going to be difficult rebuild our downtown. If we cannot improve our surrounding neighborhoods then we will not have a sustainable downtown economy and the downtown will suffer collapse as soon as the TIF subsidies expire.

        But rather than making the necessary improvements to help stabilize our neighborhoods the city continues to chase after gimmicks like Artspace because they see it as a shortcut to downtown prosperity.

        • RS says:

          I mean the DNA and the purchase of service agreement that you suggested be paid for with TIF funds. My impression was that the DNA is a neighborhood organization and may not fall under the allowed uses for TIF funds under Illinois law.

          • Crysta says:

            Ah, I gotcha. Sorry. Taking off the SWAN hat now.

            That’s actually a good question. But if it’s not DNA spending the money - and rather just partnering with the city to decide HOW to spend it - is that ok?

        • mike_c says:

          The TIF does budget for contractual services just as the general fund does. Perhaps the TIF couldn’t be used to for contracts associated with non-profits, but I don’t know. Either way, the DNA should not be funded out of the general fund. And other services to the TIF should be paid for with TIF money.

  8. mike_c says:

    Obviously the creation of a TIF means that there is less money available to the other taxing bodies such as the school district. Has U-46 had to raise their tax levy as a result of the City’s TIF creation?

  9. Terry Gavin says:

    There’s no doubt that there are far more ideas for projects then funds to pay for all of them. Some ideas posted here are better then others.

    My point regarding the ArtSpace project without being privy to all of the discussions is that a older building being retro-fitted to modern standards is a hard asset for sale if project fails, it’s also not a eyesore in an area with several. Federal grant dollars are being leveraged because of the nature of the project where other projects wouldn’t qualify for those funds.

    During the 90’s the old Ackeman Furniture store was empty & slowly deteriorating before a deal involving the city, the owners of the store & R.R Donnelly came together to retro-fit building into office space with many new jobs added in the downtown. Without city’s involvement the deal would never of happened. This also precluded any TIF district designation in this area at that time.

    If memory serves me right the first TIF district encompassed old “auto row” along S. Grove St. where the Grand Victoria is today. Since then it’s been expanded to where it is today.

    • Jeff_L says:

      Some really good points Terry. What I’m wondering is where is the Historic Commission and their griping and complaining about the ‘modernization’ of a historic building and ‘destroying our heritage’? If this was a historic home, it would NEVER be allowed. You can’t even replace rotting windows without a fight.

      Retro-fitting buildings for office space certain helps the downtown, but we also need ‘destination businesses’ as well to bring downtown back to life.

      • RS says:

        There are very few situations where modern additions to historic homes are visually appealing. But examples of nice modern additions to historic buildings (commercial/institutional) are many. Generally, it’s the only option available for preservation when a new use is required. The alternative is the wrecking ball. That’s what happened to the Crocker, the Spiess building etc. We should be glad that the historic building has found what appears to be a new, permanent use and there is no longer a danger of demolition.

        • Terry Gavin says:

          As I understand it most of the rehab work will be done to the inside of the building & updating the mechanical services, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, etc.. The outside should need very little work.

          Historic districts usually apply to residential neighborhoods where the Heritage Commission is very strict about everything you do to the exterior of the home.

  10. Jeff_L says:

    I would really appreciate if anyone could help me understand the thinking behind this program and the city’s supposed years of intending to “redevelop downtown”. Downtown is dead. I mean really dead. I feel badly for the struggling business owners that remain (but also see where some of them are their own worst enemies in the way they run their businesses).

    I’m finishing a business master’s and part of my thesis is completing a full business plan. In doing so, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at locations in downtown Elgin, particularly the nearly abandoned Spring and Grove Street area. My first question is: Why are the taxes on these buildings all over the place? The best I can tell, it is not based on square footage or assessed property value. Does anyone know?

    In regards to ArtSpace, it could be a great addition to Elgin, but an addition to what? Shouldn’t it be part of a larger redevelopment plan? We have lots of new condos that didn’t sell, many are bank-owner and most are now finally rented. Again, why would anyone want to buy and live there in a ghost town? If ArtSpace proceeds and is actually occupied, does that mean we are bringing 55 units full of unemployed artists into an already stressed economy? I couldn’t find anywhere on the ArtSpace site, or in any articles, how are these people going to make a living or where are they going to sell their art?

    I want to see a full plan. I’ve had connections with organizations in Elgin for almost 20 years and lived here for 13 years. We now have two empty city-owned parking garages and many empty buildings. Where are incentives to open a business, live, work, play downtown?

    The city seems to throw money at projects with no goal in mind. Elgin needs to have a solid plan that can be followed to completion.

    The Centre was a good idea, it just isn’t being managed properly. I used the gym for a year and after 6 months of cold showers, I took my membership elsewhere. I think the services there are overpriced for what the Elgin economy can handle. Wouldn’t it be better to lower the cost for residents, make it more affordable and have more people use the facility, even if it doesn’t boost the revenue? (Sorry, I got offtrack.)

    Elgin needs to start thinking and operating like a business geared towards social responsibility. Throwing money at projects without a plan is like putting a band-aid on an amputated limb. What does it accomplish?

    • One Vote says:

      Elgin’s downtown has an identity crisis, compounded by the rah-rah mentality of Schock and DNA. They refuse to own up to the serious problems.
      The mom and pop stores were driven out. They are fragile to begin with.
      There is nothing to draw franchises. The demographics aren’t there. There are too many alternatives.
      ArtSpace seeks to bait the creative types, but they haven’t gotten very specific. Are they visual artists? And why would Elgin appeal to them? We don’t even have an art gallery.

      • RS says:

        I don’t think we should have too high expectations for what ArtSpace will bring. It’s not really an artists’ colony and it’s not likely to turn around downtown’s fortunes. But it will put about 50 residents in the downtown, which is a good thing, and it will put some property to use that is sitting vacant. It may even be profitable for the city, but we would need to see the numbers before making that determination.

  11. What were they thinking? says:

    Jeff_L should be on the council. Imagine thinking about the big picture. But there have been many “master plans” written for the center city, all gathering dust at city hall.

    I was looking at a program for the 1946 Elgin Police Benefit Show and there were 39 places to buy alcohol listed for the downtown. One tavern after another.

    Maybe that’s why the downtown was successful, not the retail afterall! It’s time for the Liquour Commission to allow the downtown to become an entertainment center and then you’ll start to see some life after dark. Let’s start giving incentive money to businesses that people can actually benefit from.

    What am I ever going to see from “artspace?”

  12. paul says:

    “What am I ever going to see from ÔÇťartspace?”

    55 low income subsidized apartments for starving artists will require a large increase in social services, welfare, food stamps, liquor stores, dive bars, cheap restaurants, crack and heroin dealers, additional law enforcement, more lawyers, judges and administrators. It will be quite the growth spurt of additional taxpayer paid services.

  13. Combos says:

    OneVote-You forgot the mini-carnivals in downtown designed to attract the neighborhood rats carrying $$$!!!!!

  14. How is the Art Space doing lately ??