By Bob Seidenberg
Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 22 directed staff to issue requests for proposals (RFPs) for consultants to conduct an economic impact study and lead a community engagement process to gather input on Northwestern University’s proposed Ryan Field project.
Committee members voted unanimously in favor of the independent analysis of the proposed new stadium’s potential economic and fiscal impacts.
The move came after another city committee pulled back from approving staff’s choice of a firm to conduct the impact study, after strong from some members of the community that the firm was too pro-stadium/development in its past work.
City staff members had made the recommendation, reacting to pressure from officials and some community members, for an independent analysis of Northwestern’s claims about the new stadium’s benefits.
Through the RFP, staff will “conduct a nationwide search for a qualified consultant team experienced with stadium and event economics representing both private and public sector clients,” Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, said in a memo to the committee.
He told committee members the scope of services the city will be seeking through the RFP are to include:
A critical analysis of Northwestern’s own commissioned economic impact study conducted by Tripp Umbach in November 2022.
An examination of local economic, fiscal and employment impacts.
A concert/events regional market analysis, to go with Northwestern’s plan to stage up to 10 concerts a year at the rebuilt stadium.
An in-depth analysis of event attendee transportation preferences.
Concerts a special focus
“I think that it’s important for our community to have somebody that actually understands how concerts work,” Zalmezak told committee members.
“You don’t necessarily need a study to talk to us about football,” he said. “We’ve had a hundred years of football.”
Rather, Zalmezak said the hope is the study will tell the city how the new stadium in combination with the university’s existing Welsh-Ryan Arena would fare in the regional marketplace next to other venues which currently hold concerts.
“What is the likely attendance and type of concert events these two facilities will serve?” Zalmezak asked in his memo. He continued, “Of most importance is understanding the feasibility of the proposed transportation mobility options presented by the Northwestern University plan.
“For example, how likely is it that an attendee will park downtown or on Main Street, dine, and take the train or a shuttle to the venue?” he wrote. “How many shuttles would be needed, and how many hours would the shuttle run to clear the venue? Will attendees’ behavior mirror football fans with a willingness to park at distant facilities and walk? Do the facilities exist to accommodate consumer preferences? Are there examples other than Ravinia where people have the willingness to overcome the anticipated transportation friction?”
Look at impact on quality of living: Kelly
In discussion, though, Council Member Clare Kelly (1st Ward) argued that the city’s concern about how competitive NU’s new stadium shouldn’t be the study’s focus.
Rather, she said, “I’m concerned that our community is able to maintain its small businesses and identity and everything that draws people [ here]” were the stadium project to go through.
Other council members on the committee, though, saw the question of the stadium’s success as a key element. If the issue advances, council members will have the final vote on the university’s planned development request to allow the project.
Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward), chairing the meeting, asserted that for a majority of council members “who currently want the project to move forward,” the revenue generated will be a key point, “because we benefit from that as a city.”
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) said, “The way I read that [aspect of the study] is that the consultant needs to have some knowledge and experience of the concert industry to ascertain whether or not the proposed stadium is going to be a place that people want to come to see shows.”
Without that knowledge, “they won’t be able to give us an accurate assessment of economic impact,” he said.
Kelly maintained that along with the financial impact, officials need to understand the impact of the project on “our city’s quality of living, in terms of our neighborhoods.”
“You’re seeing an exodus of middle income people who move to Skokie and other cities,” she said. “Is this going to continue to exacerbate that pattern?”
Four engagement events during summer
Staff also requested a second RFP for a consultant to lead a community engagement process, gauging residents’ and businesses’ concerns about Northwestern’s billion-dollar project.
The firm selected would “gather input from Central Street businesses, Ryan Field neighbors, 7th Ward community members and Evanston’s residents community-wide,” Zalmezak said in his memo.
The engagement meetings should not take place until the significant findings of the impact study are ready for presentation, likely around early July, he said.
The process would include four engagement events that would be “interactive, and produce actionable data that will help direct the City Council in Ryan Field Rebuild decision-making,” Zalmezak’s memo said.
Officials recommended tapping the city manager’s contingency account, which has $150,000 in it, to fund the two RFPs.
Members of the Economic Development Committee may work in small groups, helping staff refine the language in the Economic Impact Study RFP, which officials are aiming to issue by March 7.
Under the proposed timetable, City Council consideration of the proposals would take place April 24. The study itself would then begin by May 1, with draft findings ready by June 30. The community engagement process would then kick off July 5. The timetable anticipates the project would be completed by July 31.