Does Evanston Value Bars Over Books?

Are libraries considered less powerful economic engines than bars in Evanston? Patch columnist Christine Wolf argues that recent city council decisions suggest bars are valued over books.

It may seem like old news that the city of Evanston shuttered the South Branch of the Evanston Public Library in 2011, but the saga continues. While the citizen-run Mighty Twig became the Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS) Branch as of January 12, 2013, many residents are frustrated to see the city offer new businesses – such as bars – cash incentives while volunteers continue to scrape together funds to keep our branches open.

As the economy dipped, cities across America closed library branches. Money was tight and tough decisions were made.

I, for one, wasn’t someone who fought against the closing of the South Branch. In my mind, we had an outstanding Main Library, not to mention a North Branch. While I was disappointed to say goodbye to an anchor of the South Evanston community, I resisted fighting for it since we had two other libraries. In my mind, a branch library served as a convenience we could live without.

However, my mind has changed.

As I watched the mighty forces rally behind the Mighty Twig, I was stunned by the dedication of our community coming together for a common purpose.

I've witnessed the Mighty Twig reinvigorate the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Main Street. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of individuals, lights and life have revitalized a corner of our town. I love seeing the strollers parked outside the space…spying people gathered inside…watching residents young and old balance books while holding the door for each other.

Last week I received a call from a concerned Evanston resident. On Monday, Evanston aldermen were set to consider , a new microbrewery proposed on Howard Street. How, this person wondered, could the city feed tax dollars to open yet another bar when our libraries still struggle to keep their doors open? The North Branch is now closed Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. What sort of economic impact does this have on the Central Street shops?

Some are furious -- even after the fact -- watching the city put money behind a new business (especially a new bar) when unemployed or underemployed residents struggled to find employment and could not access a public library to help find work. Others feel the city's obligation is encouraging profitable entities to help offset costs of public assets like libraries.

However, all this discussion may be moot: the Evanston Public Libraries are no longer part of the city of Evanston's operating budget. As part of the fiscal year 2012 budgeting process, the city agreed to move the library's operating expenditures into a separate fund (explained on p. 128 of the 2012 budget). As library director Karen Danczak Lyons explained to Patch last year, the library has "always been funded through the property tax, but it’s been part of the general levy, whereas now you’ll be able to see a separate line for the Evanston Public Library on your tax bill."

To me, the questions still remain. What do our libraries mean to the city of Evanston. Are they economic engines or necessary-yet-expensive drags on our budget? Are we "house poor" with our Main Library, just now getting around to paying the piper? Who gains the most -- or stands to lose the most -- when our libraries' doors are closed?

Steve Newberger February 28, 2013 at 04:54 PM
Point taken, Christine. Bottom line, our city needs both "community centers that might happen to contain a few books and media to lend", i.e., the libraries, and an entertainment and dining/beverage element.
Patrice February 28, 2013 at 05:44 PM
"well worth the city's occasional financial encouragement" is so much different than buying the building, funding the improvements, and giving operating money to any business. That is what the city did last year and now they are doing it again. It seems if you want to open a restaurant on Howard, just befriend the alderman, have a line of proposed employee's show up at the city council meeting touting how great a place this will be, ask for $200,000.00, and whalla, your a new business owner, all at the City of Evanston taxpayers expense. Really?%$#@ I am so upset that my tax bill goes up and up, and what we get are wine bars and restaurants. I get TIF dollars being used for infrastructure, structural, and/or the occasional awning improvements, but I will never understand spending this amount of tax dollars on a private business venture. That is what investors and banks are for. This much risk should never be a burden to taxpayers, never!
Procrustes' Foil March 01, 2013 at 11:04 AM
Patrice, you are so right! Banks (especially the big banks) are sitting on barrels of money, i.e., profits, and doing nothing with it. Lending is the primary role of banks.
Lori Keenan March 01, 2013 at 09:24 PM
Great column, Christine. As a longtime supporter of the libraries I would also like to add that this idea of city funding private businesses over community services doesn't only apply to libraries. When a community group proposed buying the old recycling center and having the city help fund an indoor sports facility which would have been shared by AYSO and EBSA thousands of supporters signed a petition in favor, yet Alderman Rainey (who has rallied to propose and vote for private bars on Howard Street at the taxpayer's expense) had this to say: “I will never support it, I will do everything to defeat it,” said Rainey, who represents the eighth ward where the property is located. The article goes on to say: Ald. Ann Rainey described the terms as “an outrage” saying the indoor sports facility would be a loss to city tax rolls at a city where she believes a for-profit operation could bring not just lease income but property tax revenue. So... let me get this straight: using COE money to buy buildings and give business loans to bar owners is a good thing, but helping fund businesses for Evanston's youth is a bad thing? Again, back to your question about What are Evanston's priorities, and are they really being served by the aldermen who supposedly represent our interests with their votes? Maybe not.
Patrice March 01, 2013 at 11:02 PM
I would have thought that the 8th ward would welcome the heavy traffic that a sports complex would have brought to the area. What's more positive than that? I know when my kids use to play sports, and practice almost everyday, I would drop them off and run errands to all the surrounding establishments. I think that decision was short sighted.


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