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.
“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.”