Northwestern University assembled supporters of the proposed demolition and reconstruction of Ryan Field Thursday, saying the project would have a positive impact on all Evanston residents.
“We’ve said from the outset of this project that this is more than just a football stadium,” Northwestern’s Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations Dave Davis said at a news conference at Evanston’s Family Focus, an organization that provides support to local children and families. “This is about the future of our city.”
A news release from the university said the new stadium will be a boost for local restaurants, hotels and other tourism.
Plans for the new stadium include 12,000 fewer seats, but will add a canopy for improved sound and lighting quality, increased accessibility, a focus on sustainability and more green spaces.
Jim Young, founder of Evanston’s Movers and Shakers, a support group for those living with Parkinson’s disease, praised the university for its commitment to making the new facility accessible and said it makes a huge impact for people with disabilities.
Other residents who spoke in favor of the project include former 5th Ward Alderperson Dolores Holmes, co-owner of C & W Market Clarence Weaver, longtime Ryan Field neighbor Mike O’Connor and First Church of God Christian Life Center and Chairmen of Evanston Own It Pastor Monte’ L.G. Dillard, Sr.
Holmes gave a history of Family Focus, saying that in its early days, Northwestern was able to donate furniture to the facility and connect the organization with student volunteers.
“Our history here has been long and good,” she said. “It’s very fitting that you be here at Family Focus today.”
But some critics said they remain concerned about Northwestern’s commitment to investing in minority-owned business and the impact on local taxpayers.
“This is sort of disingenuous in our opinion because now this is something that Northwestern wants very badly so they’re willing to make promises that we don’t believe they are going to keep,” Kevin Brown, a board member of the Community Alliance for Better Government said.
In a news release, the university promised that at least 35% of the subcontracting for the project will go to minority and women-owned businesses alongside a construction job training pipeline designed to help move people from low-wage jobs to better-paying careers in the trades.
Brown, a 1985 Northwestern graduate, said the university should focus on inclusion issues for minority students and staff before tackling an entertainment space.
Davis said the university has always been engaged and involved with the community whenever it has developed or built in the city.
“We’ll be working with our Black and Brown business groups. We’ll be working with our Latino groups. We’ll be working with women-owned business owners and with local business owners to ensure that they can also have a cut of the pie,” Davis said. “This is an opportunity for those groups to generate generational wealth.”
Brown said he would like the university to include Community Alliance for Better Government as part of the negotiation process. The group is hosting a community meeting about Ryan Field on Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, he said.
Recent polling funded by the university and conducted by national public opinion firm Impact Research showed that among 500 residents surveyed across all nine wards, 56% approved of the project with 29% opposed. While 74% of respondents said they were in favor of eight concerts a year, 64% were in favor of up to 12, according to information provided by Northwestern.
David DeCarlo, a member of Evanston’s Most Livable City Association, said he is unhappy about Northwestern’s refusal to discuss contributing to the cost of city services.
“Northwestern seems to be using their power and their influence and really their wealth to push this through,” DeCarlo said. “They’re willing to put up almost a billion dollars for a new stadium but won’t even talk to our community about a fair share payment in lieu of taxes.”
The Ryan family, which gave the stadium its name, has reportedly agreed to fund the renovation with a $480 million gift alongside funds gathered through the university’s “We Will” campaign, which amassed over $6 billion from 174,380 private donors.
DeCarlo hopes the university will pump the brakes on the project or local government will take a stand against it. The Evanston City Council must approve the plan before it can proceed.
“I have a lot of concerns about the way this is playing out,” he said. “I don’t understand how any city official could be representing the interests of the community and vote for this without demanding a conversation about that (payment in lieu of taxes).”
An economic impact study released last year by consulting firm Tripp Umbach said the construction would have a $1.2 billion economic impact in Cook and Lake Counties by 2031, with $659.9 million in economic impact to the City of Evanston during construction. The study also said that design, planning, and construction will support 2,924 jobs and bring $1.5 million in indirect tax revenue, with an additional $11 million in permit-related fees to the city.