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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?

lucas February 25, 2013 at 07:16 PM
Don't forget the Sweetheart Deal the Ward Eight BAR received.
Procrustes' Foil February 26, 2013 at 11:39 AM
Christine, your opinion paper is very thoughtful and important. I did fight to keep the South Branch open, via calls to my alderwoman, donations, etc. Libraries are a community's anchor. Obviously, they need funding from public and private sources. But how much more do we have to loose so that we can have a microbrewery and a few more restaurants? Will revenue from these business enterprises be enough to help support our library? I sure hope so, or we need to cast our votes for a city council who will maintain our library.
Jen February 26, 2013 at 01:14 PM
Well, you'd be hard pressed to find a bigger supporter of libraries than me, and I agree Evanston pitifully underfunds the library. It's downright embarrassing when you compare our library to others in nearby communities. Still, I am also happy that the city is helping new restaurants and bars to open. Even a few years ago there really wasn't much in the way of night spots in town. Again, this is something nearby towns have been actively working on, and if Evanston doesn't it will be left behind. All these new businesses are making me happier to stay and spend my money in Evanston. But I don't think these two things are mutually exclusive. You can fund two goals at once! Of course priorities have to be made, but theoretically by funding the right businesses you will generate more revenue that can be funneled into public services such as libraries. Unfortunately, the library isn't even in the top 20 priorities in Evanston.
Patrice February 26, 2013 at 02:33 PM
I think there is a huge problem with the COE investing money in start up businesses. Isn't that job of banks and/or private investors? They are equipped to evaluate a business plan and determine the risk and probable success. What recourse do the taxpayers have if these businesses fail? The libraries have proven to be economic drivers of traffic to each business district they are in, yet our council has absolutely no value for them. Thank God we have citizens who do understand this.
Steve Newberger February 28, 2013 at 03:40 AM
I agree with Christine and others here in applauding the citizen activists who insist that the southeast side needs a storefront "library," thereby keeping up with the Joneses of the northwest side whose library somehow never did completely close. That said, I have come to believe that brick and mortar libraries aren't really the best option for city treasure, especially in this Internet age where for many, a device they carry in their pocket provides instant access to resources that spectacularly exceed the meager content found downtown, much less on Chicago Av. or Central St. However, expecting good choices on this topic from our city's elected and appointed leaders and especially the library board has always been disappointing. Case in point: Some years ago the library, once again expressing its all-consuming edifice complex (3rd building at Orrington & Church since I moved here as a child in 1958), made its choice clear between a fancy structure and content. Structure all the way. Still pretty sparse on those shelves after all this time. Regarding city support for restaurants: I recall well the days when it was Fanny's or nothing at all, so the rich and increasing number of food and beverage choices, gaining local, even national recognition, is a tremendous improvement and more importantly a business magnet, and seems well worth the city's occasional financial encouragement.
Christine Wolf February 28, 2013 at 03:57 AM
Steve, you raise some excellent points, particularly about the access to online content at a moment's notice. I still think libraries do far more for a community, though (whether in a fancy brick building or a shed). Within the past 15 years, here are just a few of the ways my family members have used the Main Branch: 1. Checked out books and videos 2. Used the Teen Loft 3. Participated in the Children's Summer Reading Program 4. Held meetings with a tutor after school 5. Earned community service hours for ETHS by volunteering in the children's dept. 6. Killed an hour browsing and discovering books 7. Studied for the BAR exam 8. Gotten out of the house to work on my children's novel in PEACE AND QUIET 9. Taken field trips 10. Attended summer chess night 11. Helped make a video for Foundation 65 12. Dropped in on a story hour 13. Taken rambunctious, out-of-town nephews there to explore on a rainy day I could go on and on and on...
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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