Recreation sites may have food on their menus in the future

By Bob Seidenberg 

Fleetwood-Jourdain, the Arrington Lagoon Picnic Shelter, James Park, the Clark Street Beach House, Robert Crown – most residents have used those facilities at one time or another in connection with recreation activities.

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee enthusiastically endorsed a staff plan July 26 to create more food opportunities for users of those facilities too.

At the meeting,  Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, and Audrey Thompson, Director of Parks, Recreation & Community Services, outlined the new strategy, which seeks to create market-driven food service program for the facilities, where vending machine items are often the only choices.

Thompson said the drawback struck home with her when she first took the job of director in 2022 and was at an event at Robert Crown “and I couldn’t even buy a hot dog with a bag of nachos.”

“And I thought what a missed opportunity,” she told EDC members.

Currently she said the city has three kitchens at Robert Crown, Levy Center and Fleetwood-Jourdain that are licensed and could be in greater use.

“Robert Crown could be open seven days a week, literally,” she said. She said a workforce program could be developed around such a program, presenting job training opportunities.

“This is an opportunity, if we do it right to  increase our revenues so the program would pay for itself,” she said.

Upsy-Daisy Cafe out 

Under the proposal, staff is recommending hiring one full-time employee to manage the program.

In April of last year, EDC members gave approval to EDC staff to negotiate a lease with Sandeep Ghaey, formerly of the Vinic Wine Company, to operate a restaurant at the Arrington Lagoon building in Dawes Park, which sits just off the lake.

Staff is recommending cancelling plans to proceed with that concept, Zalmezak said in a memo. He told committee members at the meeting that no contract or lease resulted from the process. “It’s been a slow roll,” he said.

Rather, officials recommend that the city instead “accommodate an RFP process that includes the four other facilities highlighted above,” he said in his memo.

“Evanston will likely benefit from a broader base of food establishments that will now be interested in participating in this expanded food program now that more time has elapsed between the height of the pandemic and the fears of business failures,” he wrote.

The proposal would include the hiring of one full-time employee to manage the program.

 “A committed full-time staff member will also ensure high responsiveness and management of implementing the eventually selected food establishments,” Zalmezak noted.

He said staff will submit a budget amendment to the City Council in August, with the intent to advertise and fill  the position in the fall of 2023. That person would then be in position to prepare for summer 2024 operations through fall, winter and spring, he said in his memo.

Several EDC members spoke enthusiastically in support of the new direction at the meeting, held at a downtown restaurant, Thomas & Dutch 703 Church St., where food was on their plate, literally.

“I’m very excited about this, and it’s wonderful,” said Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward. “‘This is place-making just to get this going, to have high quality food service for public parks. 

She said it also presents “an amazing opportunity to promote and support our local businesses.”

Food trucks, too

On the Arrington Lagoon, which falls in the First Ward, “This has to be done right. I’m very sensitive to the neighbors that live nearby.”

She suggested the possibility of trying a food service program maybe a few weekends at that site and other places as well this fall on a trial basis.

Thompson mentioned the possibility of food trucks and expanding their use.

“I know traditionally food trucks are not something that our lakefront wants a lot of time but they came to our Starlight concert last week, it was packed and the food trucks had to leave because they ran out [of items].”

“So there are opportunities that we are really missing and the food is a big part, even at the lakefront,” she said. “We think of the lakefront as something that’s just seasonal, but our goal at Parks and Rec is to make even our parks year round.”

Zalmezak indicated officials were gratified to hear the support for the program that they were receiving.

“Several years ago we were afraid to talk about this,” he said. The positive feedback “gives us the courage to actually bring forward bigger ideas.”

EDC member Lisa Dziekan indicated that was all right with her.

“I’ll just say that I think as a community, we need to be encouraging our team at Evanston to take risks and be bold. “Public works, Parks, Economic Development — Evanston touts itself as a progressive community where we should be progressive in all ways. You know the tagline of ‘Progress without Change?’ That ain’t moving the needle in Evanston. And so I think we need to be a little bolder…” she said.

“Bravo,” she said to staff, winding up discussion.

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