By Bob Seidenberg
Two senior City Council members took strong issue with the head of a group that markets the city as a destination place, suggesting her past remarks advocating for Northwestern University’s $800 million stadium project “crossed the line” in their criticism of residents who oppose the project.
At the Aug. 28 City Council meeting, Council Members Thomas Suffredin (6th Ward) and Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) expressed their dissatisfaction to Gina Speckman, the longtime executive director of the North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. She appeared at the council meeting for the group’s annual funding request.
Suffredin told Speckman he shared the same concern expressed by David DeCarlo, president of the Most Livable City Association, earlier in the meeting, about tax dollars going to a group advocating for something many residents don’t want.
“I think it would be a wise idea for you to choose not to participate in that discussion in your capacity,” Suffredin advised Speckman.
In response, Speckman maintained that the visitors bureau “is a trade association and our members do want some positive advocacy on some of these issues.”
She said the bureau’s members in this case include hotels, restaurants and others who pay for the bureau’s services.
Evanston is a founding member of the organization, which works closely with local businesses, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce and others to identify events the group can market regionally and nationally.
Revelle told Speckman, “Normally, I am a strong supporter of your budget. I do think your visitors bureau provides a really important source to the community and brings us business to our hotels or restaurants, etc,” but she added she was “very disappointed” after reading an article about comments Speckman made on Dec. 8, 2022, at an Evanston Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event.
“It wasn’t only that you were speaking out in support of the stadium, but your comments were disparaging to my residents, so I’m going to have to vote no,” Revelle said.
The Dec. 8 event was held in the Wilson Club lounge area, which overlooks the Welsh-Ryan basketball court.
Not ‘Little House on the Prairie’
At that meeting in December, five senior leaders of the university briefed a mostly business audience on the $800 million stadium project and the benefits it would bring.
Speckman, in the audience, spoke after the meeting was opened to questions and comments.
“I obviously think this would be a great asset for Evanston,” she said of the stadium project. “I know it’s a great asset for the entire North Shore. But, of course, I think Evanston should be first in line to reap the benefit from it. I know a lot of my other communities benefit from Northwestern, so I would like to see the same enthusiasm from Evanston itself.
“And I think that the neighbors around here [Welsh-Ryan], some of them have concerns which I think you guys have painstakingly addressed. But what happens is those few neighbors that are against this are very, very loud, and the business community that would obviously benefit from it are just moving along, running their businesses. We cannot be silent and let the neighbors determine what happens with this project.”
Gina Speckman, executive director of the North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, during the Evanston City Council meeting on Aug. 28. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube
She urged business community members to show up at meetings “and have a say and don’t let this project not happen because five neighbors want to pretend they live in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and want it nice and quiet. I mean, that’s not where we are today, and I hope you all can support this.”
Dave Davis, the executive director of neighborhood and community relations at Northwestern, followed, explaining the three different approvals university officials need to receive from the city in order for the project to go forward.
At Suffredin’s urging, staff at the council meeting played several short videos at the meeting of Speckman speaking in support of the project.
In one, she spoke of the advantages to the city’s hotels because of the university’s presence here.
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She said in her conclusion, “I’m excited about the new Ryan Field project because I think it’ll be a game changer for Evanston to have a state-of-the-art facility right here.”
‘‘Crossed the line’: Suffredin
Suffredin suggested to Speckman that, perhaps not in those videos, but “I think you crossed the line making disparaging comments [about] residents who have expressed concerns.”
He asked her if she disagreed. Speckman said she did.
“I think that whenever a big project happens in a city or area, the residents aren’t really for it,” she said. “And I think they have their say, and I think the business community shouldn’t be intimidated in having their say.”
Suffredin pressed her about comments regarding “not letting a small number of people control the conversation.”
“I don’t remember everything I’ve said on the issue,” she responded.
“Again, we’re stating our stance from the business side of it, from the hospitality-business side,” Speckman said, “and there’s going to be a lot of others [points of view] and we’re not going to have real say in that decision at the end but we have our right to have our [opinion].”
During public comment, the Most Livable City Association’s DeCarlo pointed to the funding of the bureau as an example of the obstacles the group has run up against in “its desire for an open and straightforward process, both from the university and public officials.”
Since at least December, he noted, the organization and its executive director “have been lobbying and campaigning in favor of Northwestern’s Ryan Field proposal, which thousands of Evanstonians oppose.”
Question on lobbying
He asked council members, “Why is an organization, funded by our tax dollars, allowed to lobby and campaign for something so many people in Evanston don’t want?”
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He urged council members to vote no on the request for funding or at least, refer it back to the Economic Development Committee and ask staff to determine a way to restrict the group from lobbying on behalf of Northwestern.
In discussion of the visitors bureau’s $69,674 request, Council Members Devon Reid (8th Ward) and Bobby Burns (5th Ward) expressed concerns about the need for the organization to develop better tools to demonstrate the value it is bringing the city.
Burns, who said he had no idea about the issues surrounding the group’s lobbying, said, “There’s a way a you can track every single thing that you do as a bureau, and I think you should,” he told Speckman, “when you come back next year.”
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) agreed that having a tool showing greater data would make officials’ decision “a slam dunk.”
For now, he noted, “We’re talking about less than $70,000,” referring to contribution by the city. The bureau’s budget amounts to more than $3 million.
“So what we’re getting is really leveraging a little bit of money from Evanston taxpayers, getting much more value out of this relationship than we’re paying in,” he said.
“This is the kind of thing that helps put Evanston on the map,” he said. “We need more of this if we are going to merge into a post-COVID economy that works for our downtown. We need more people in town and we need to pull out all the stops on getting people in the town, and investing in the visitor’s bureau helps bring people to town and I think we should all be very excited to support this.”
Council members voted 6-2 in favor of the bureau’s $69,674 funding request, with Suffredin and Revelle voting against.