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$15,000 City Loan Keeps Curt’s Café Open

Evanston’s city council voted Monday night to support a $15,000 loan to the nonprofit café at 2922 Central St., which hires ex-offenders.

Following heated debate and tough questions from Evanston aldermen, Curt’s Café founder Susan Trieschmann walked away from Monday night’s council meeting with a $15,000 loan. She said the money was necessary to keep the doors open at her nonprofit café, which employs ex-offenders. 

Council members voted 8-1 to approve the loan, with Alderman Coleen Burrus (9th ward) casting the dissenting vote. 

Trieschmann sought a loan from the city’s economic development fund to construct a new kitchen for the café, which opened last spring at 2922 Central St. A former co-owner of Food for Thought catering, Trieschmann opened the café to provide employment, job training and job placement to young adults who have come in contact with the juvenile justice system. Without an emergency cash infusion for the kitchen, Trieschmann said she might have to shut down by the end of the year.

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“Our kids, because they are ex-offenders, have almost a 50 percent chance of re-offending, and the severity of their offenses do tend to go up,” Trieschmann told the council. “We’re going to pay for them one way or another.” 

“Either Curt’s Café can help them now or we as a community can help them after,” she said.

Council members were presented with a resolution to approve a $9,000 loan to Curt’s Café, as well as a $21,000 grant to the Youth Job Center to place students at the café for job training.

But Trieschmann explained that she was actually seeking more than $9,000 from the council. Economic development office staff members had reduced the loan amount from $25,000 to $9,000 after learning that Trieschmann had recently raised $16,000 from donors. But Trieschmann said she planned to put the $16,000 she raised toward a debt of $22,000 in back rent for the property, which she owns, money that will ultimately go toward her property taxes. A prior tenant was evicted without paying seven months of rent, according to Trieschmann.

Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th Ward) fired a barrage of questions at Trieschmann, saying she was very concerned about giving city money to an organization that might not be financially stable, given the outstanding debt. 

“We’re giving away a lot of money to a business that hasn’t fully fleshed out their business plan,” Burrus said. “We’re being asked to bail you out.”

But Trieschmann said she had run into unexpected hurdles after starting Curt’s Café. An attorney advised her that it would take six to seven months to gain 501(c)(3) status from the federal government, which allows donors to take tax write-offs for their contributions. But the IRS changed its rules for nonprofits this year, forcing many people to reapply and causing a backlog in applications. Curt’s Café has been granted nonprofit status by the state of Illinois, but is still waiting for the federal government. 

That has made it difficult for Trieschmann to raise as much money, she said, while a $35,000 loan also fell through.

A new kitchen, however, would help her host fundraising dinners and save money on food preparation costs, she said. 

Burrus questioned Trieschmann’s explanation, saying she believed unanticipated hurdles were a part of starting any new business or nonprofit, and Curt’s Café shouldn’t get special treatment. Furthermore, she said, the city just couldn’t afford the loan or grant. 

“This is money that we could be using to pay off our $156 million debt,” Burrus said, noting that the city had laid off four people in 2012. “We have $189 million in pension funds. We can’t seem to keep within our budget and live within our means.” 

Other aldermen, however, said they believed the café was a step forward to combating violence in Evanston, and that they believed the nonprofit would ultimately be a success, given its fundraising abilities so far.

Ald. Mark Tendam, who oversees the sixth ward where Curt’s Café is located, noted that Trieschmann was already seeing success with ex-offenders. According to Trieschmann, she has placed three former employees in jobs and is about to place another three.

“The youth that Susan has brought in to work cost the community tens of thousands of dollars when not supported, when left to their own means sometimes,” he said. “It would be a horrible shame not to support it. The only worse risk we could take financially is not supporting this.” 

Tendam and other aldermen cited the recent violence in Evanston as part of their motivation for supporting the loan to Curt’s Café. 

“When we think about the money that we have spent in the last few weeks in terms of policing work, it dwarfs this,” said Ald. Melissa Wynne (2nd ward). “It makes this look like nothing.” 

Ald. Ann Rainey said she supported the concept of loaning money to businesses, but was concerned about the $21,000 grant to the Youth Job Center. She said she wanted to see a specific budget from the Youth Job Center before she could support the grant. 

“We’re not going to send over a check,” Rainey said. “That’s kind of a serious amount of money and I think we should really know how it’s going to be used.” 

Rainey suggested that aldermen hold off on voting on the grant for the Youth Job Center until they had more information, but also suggested that the city raise the loan amount for Curt’s Café to cover the full cost of the kitchen buildout, which Trieschmann estimated at $15,000. 

Rainey moved to amend the resolution to grant Trieschmann a $15,000 loan, and to remove the grant for the Youth Job Center. As approved, the terms of the $15,000 loan to Curt’s Café call for no interest accruing or payments due for the first 12 months.

“They are doing wonderful things with young people that other people are not reaching,” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, adding that she was confident the nonprofit would be a success. “Let’s be clear that I do think they are going to make sufficiently much more money.”

Elizabeth Mages December 11, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Curt's Cafe is not only helping the young people who receive job skills training, GED counseling, and social work services, but is also fostering collaboration among many different organizations and groups in the community that might not have found one another without Curt's as a base. Neighbors hold meetings, birthday parties, brownie sign-ups, book clubs and other get togethers at Curt's. Curt's itself hosts meetings, information sessions, visits with Santa, and Open Mike nights. This place draws people together and fosters the kind of communication we need to align resources to help prevent violence in our community. If you haven't already, stop by and check it out!
lucas December 11, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Has the city council heard of SBA. Why are they financing Businesses?
Cindy Levitt December 11, 2012 at 11:30 PM
I agree Elizabeth. The book reading event held last Sunday morning at Curt's was a great success and a full house. People are gathering who come from all over town. I think it offers a chance for Evanston residents to be a part of something really exciting. It's not a charity. There is no "them" vs. "us at Curt's. It's really more about the "we"!
lucas December 12, 2012 at 12:09 AM
http://www.sba.gov/
Ruth Richman December 12, 2012 at 03:03 AM
How refreshing to see our community support a venture that "walks the walk" to improve conditions for local kids. Curt's serves as an example for my own teenager, who also like the atmosphere and the idea that they're patronizing a place that exists to do good.
lucas December 12, 2012 at 03:18 AM
Felony Franks Exists to do good but was rejected
Dileep Gangolli December 12, 2012 at 01:07 PM
This should not be a loan. This should be a grant by the City to help prevent the recent spate of violence that has been a plague on our City. The social benefits to the City of Evanston of assisting in operating this type of business far outweigh the fiscal cost. I would rather have my tax payer money go to this type of business than pay 41% of City Hall staffers $100K and then wait in line for service at City Hall.
Jim December 12, 2012 at 01:50 PM
Amen
Marian kurz December 12, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Curt's is a wise investment and a well run organization. Susan's experience in the food business makes her a viable risk for a loan, congratulations to the Council for doing something really positive for the community. MK
millie December 12, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Perhaps you need to read the article.
Rick December 12, 2012 at 06:56 PM
I too must ask when the city got into the banking business. What are the terms of this loan? At what interest rate is the money being lent? Under what circumstances would the loan be considered to be in default? Is the loan secured, and if so, by what? Is the city playing an interest rate spread by borrowing at one rate and lending at another? As taxpayers, we're entitled to know these things.
Jim Osburn December 12, 2012 at 10:02 PM
My little business could use a sweet loan like that, too. Just fill out a Form 1024, hold a book reading (as long as it's not Ayn Rand) and cry to the city council? Sorry to sound like such a jerk, but small business people often resent paying taxes and fees to help competition. (Another reason to be skeptical of how TIF's are administered.)
millie December 12, 2012 at 10:24 PM
Aldermen voted Monday to grant nearly $8,000 in façade improvement funds to Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles, a new restaurant planned for Evanston’s west side. The grant comes on top of $200,000 in city funds that council members agreed to loan the business in April.
Dileep Gangolli December 13, 2012 at 01:58 PM
I agree with the above comments regarding loans to small business that are operating strictly for profit. I run a small business also. However the Cafe has a social purpose and perhaps should be operating as a 501-c-3 rather than a for profit business. If the money were given as a grant rather than a loan it would be less complicated and not viewed as "financing a business". I think this is a very different situation and if they take some sales away from the Starbucks down the street, I doubt the money would be missed in Seattle.

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