Northwestern University, scrambling to win support in Evanston for its plan to host concerts in a new football stadium, Monday pledged $100 million in donations to the community over the next 10 years if it gets its way.
The school announced the pledge hours before the City Council began its first hearing Monday night on Northwestern’s controversial proposal for Ryan Field.
Alderpersons heard more than three hours of public testimony on the project before questioning NU’s representatives and members of the Most Livable City Association, vocal opponents of the concerts. A decision for or against the project could come Nov. 13.
Monday’s meeting went late into the night, with most testimony opposing Northwestern. Speakers were given one and a half minutes each to reprise arguments made at length before the city’s Land Use Commission. The advisory panel held three meetings on Ryan Field and on Oct. 11 voted 7-2 against Northwestern’s request for concerts.
The university wants to spend about $800 million to demolish the 97-year-old stadium at 1501 Central St. and replace it with a new arena that, besides Big Ten football games, could host six concerts annually.
Many people who live near Ryan Field in Evanston and Wilmette have fought the concert proposal, arguing the events would bring crowds and noise to a quiet residential area. Northwestern has said it can minimize noise and traffic tie-ups while generating millions of dollars for Evanston’s economy.
Observers believe the City Council is closely divided on the issue, with the possibility of a 4-4 vote that would have Mayor Daniel Biss casting the tiebreaker. Biss has said he is undecided, but he has proposed tax increases for events at Ryan Field, a financial incentive for the city to authorize the concerts. Ticket buyers, and not the university, would have to pay the tax.
Northwestern has argued it needs concert revenue to make the stadium financially viable. It is not seeking tax subsidies for the project, backed largely by a $480 million pledge from businessman Pat Ryan.
Northwestern’s fundraising commitment, the first time it has made specific financial pledges tied to the stadium plan, includes an annual $3 million donation for 10 years to Evanston’s Good Neighbor Fund, up from $1 million currently. It also said it will donate $2 million a year for 10 years in financial aid for Evanston high school students.
A university spokesperson could not be reached on the timing of the pledge, contained in a memorandum of understanding drafted with city officials. NU pays no property taxes.
Biss’ tax package would double the city’s levy on liquor sales to 12% at Ryan Field events, and the city’s amusement tax, 7% for events with more than 1,500 people, would go to 9%. Biss said the increase would help the city pay for managing Ryan Field concerts.
The mayor denied in an email he was trying to build support for concerts.
He said, “I do think that since Council is going to consider allowing large concerts, they should have the option to immediately establish a tax rate that matches Chicago’s. And the liquor tax simply strikes me as good public policy that will be relevant whether or not there’s a new stadium and whether or not there are concerts.”