David Colker says he hears the clock ticking on his proposal to open a state-of-the art music theater and recording studio on West Davis Street. In interviews with the RoundTable Mr. Colker said he has an option on the proposed site, 1026 Davis St., now occupied by Tom Thumb Hobby & Crafts, and in 2011 he received a zoning variance from the City to build the 45-foot-high building he says is necessary to ensure high-quality sound within.
With commitments for about a third of the $20 million Mr. Colker said he will need to make the project operational and a dim prospect of obtaining conventional financing, Mr. Colker is looking to the City for help. He is requesting a loan, secured by the property, to begin and complete the 500-seat theater, which he says could attract as many as 100,000 people annually. He said he hopes the City will respond quickly and favorably, because his fourth and final option on the Tom Thumb property will expire at the end of this year.
In the works since 2010, Grace Music Theater “will have a unique and aesthetically beautiful nautilus-shaped seating arrangement that will give every seat a direct sight line and put every ticket-holder within 50 feet of the artist. ...The audience will be sitting in a state-of-the-art recording studio, which will be used during the shows to capture live performance content and which will provide sound second to none in the City,” Mr. Colker said.
Grace will book “the highest-quality talent from all music genres,” with an emphasis on acoustic performances – even by those who typically form on electric instruments, said Mr. Colker. Further, “We will do everything possible to give the best local talent an opportunity to perform at Grace.” He said he does not consider Grace as competitive with SPACE on Chicago Avenue but somewhat complementary to it.
A restaurant in the building would feature “high-end, small-portion food and a large bar/lounge scene,” Mr. Colker said. He said Grace is “shovel-ready” and could be operational in 18-24 months once the financing is in place.
The Case for Money
Speaking before the City Council on March 18, Mr. Colker said, “The City Council has recently given significant financial assistance to the business community, including $2 million for a shopping mall, $2 million for a grocery store and $10 million for an office building.
“I can tell you I am doing everything possible to limit the financial commitment and risk for the City, and I expect to need a level of support that is no more than what the City has provided to other projects around town, such as the Chicago/Main office building and Trader Joe’s,” Mr. Colker told the RoundTable.
In an April 10 memo to Johanna Nyden of the City’s Economic Development Division, Mr. Colker stated his for case for receiving a loan from the City: “The primary role for the City is to provide short-term, post-construction bridge debt financing until Grace can develop enough operational history to refinance its debt with traditional lenders or additional equity partners. Given current conditions in the debt market, the simple reality is that an ambitious project such as Grace cannot be built – and the City cannot realize its ambition to use the performing arts as an economic driver –without the City’s taking an active financial role through public-private partnerships.”
At the June 26 meeting of the City’s Economic Development Committee, Mr. Colker said, he plans to present a petition signed by 12 business or property owners in the West Davis Street area. The petition asks the EDC to recommend to the City Council that the area be assessed to see if it will qualify as a tax-increment financing (TIF) district.
City officials contacted by the RoundTable seemed to be supportive of the concept of Grace but hesitant to offer City support.
Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson told the RoundTable he liked the project and found it exciting but would not back the request for money. “There are other music venues doing well on their own without City money,” he said.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said, “We have talked with Mr. Colker in the past, and he has been [around a lot] lately. At some point the City Council is going to have a larger discussion on arts in Evanston. I have no problem with Grace, but I do have problem with [requesting] money from a TIF that isn’t there [and with] redrawing the boundaries of a TIF or extending its life.”