Observer Q & A / Eugene Sunshine
Northwestern's chief financial and administrative officer discusses the University's relationship with the City of Evanston.
As you try to expand the Northwestern-Evanston relationship, what good things can you build on?
Overall, I think the relationship is quite good, and the University hopes to expand upon it. When some people talk about “town-gown” relations, they tend to focus on the contentiousness. That part seems to garner significant news coverage. But when I think of “town-gown,” I think more broadly and include the city administration, the two school districts, local business, and other non-profit organizations. These things should be included in the spectrum of the relationship.
Over the years, and especially recently, we’ve done a lot of productive things for those sectors and, simultaneously, Northwestern has benefited as well.
What are some examples?
We’ve developed programs with the local business community to promote the purchasing and utilization of goods and services sold in Evanston. The Wild About Evanston program helps kick off the new school year and alerts students to what’s available from local merchants. We also have a successful initiative in which the University purchases more than $12 million from Evanston businesses. And when you talk to business owners familiar with these programs, they say they’d like the school districts and the city to emulate the Northwestern model. We’re proud of what we do.
Similarly, we have a great program with the schools in Project Excite, which has been featured extensively in this publication. (See photo on page 1.) It is now several years old and, in addition to University money supporting it, the program has captured some foundation support. It is exactly the kind of work through which Northwestern can make a difference because we’re not throwing money at a problem. We’re taking our exceptional resources — talented faculty, students and staff — and applying them to a particular problem in the community where they can make a real impact.
We report on the good things Northwestern does in Evanston. What are some good things the city does for the University?
I certainly don’t expect the city to do things for us out of the goodness of its heart. But I do expect it to do things that make sense for Evanston and also make sense for Northwestern.
A great example is the movie theatre project of the late 1990s. The City came to us with plans to develop the southern end of the Research Park, land that we owned. It asked us for the land so it could have built what is now the Century Theatres on Maple Avenue. We worked out an agreement whereby Evanston gave us land at the north end of the Research Park, now a parking lot and home to the Farmer’s Market. We, in effect, swapped parcels. Also, the city rezoned for us the Engelhart Hall surface parking lot so that we could someday build a garage there.
I think what is reasonable to expect of this relationship is an openness to reaching agreements like these, when “win-win” situations can be created. Something good happens for both parties in these agreements and we shake hands and go off happy. We don’t expect gifts and we don’t expect to be treated differently than any other party in the community.
What other kinds of win-win projects might we see in the future?
There probably are many opportunities for the continued exporting of our academic talent. What we’ve already proven with Project Excite and the Lighthouse Partnership is there are situations where our research and teaching interests align with the needs of the local schools. We ought to be looking for more of those types of programs. The next generation of ideas is as yet undefined. There’s engineering, communications, journalism, and so on.
I think it’s unfortunate that the contentiousness has distracted us in recent years from exploring other partnering arrangements. It might be possible to do some joint procurement or joint services. Perhaps some procurement in the area of health care.
As long as we have an attitude that says ‘let’s try and work on it’ — and we do — then good things are likely to happen.
Aside from exporting academic resources, what other ways are there to achieve the “win-win” agreement?
There have been some other major successes, such as the fiber-optic cable project. The University needed to put another line into its 2020 Ridge building, and a few other facilities, such as where we are renting office space. And the city wanted a fiber-optic system to connect its major municipal buildings, the police stations and fire stations and others. Evanston Budget Director Pat Casey, Ald. Ed Moran and former City Manager Roger Crum all provided excellent leadership on this. We negotiated an agreement where Northwestern received what it needed and Evanston received a high-quality fiber optic system at a greatly reduced price. It was a complicated deal with a lot of good faith negotiating. It passed the City Council in a 9-0 vote.
Are there others?
There are many items that don't get much general attention, like relocating Evanston Fire Station 3 to Ryan Field so it could continue to service the area as a new station was built. When there are crafts fairs in the city park at the beach, south of campus, patrons use our parking garage free of charge. The farmers’ market is held on our land at the Research Park, again at no charge to the city. We have requests and interactions like these every day. And I point them out simply to illustrate the normal ebb and flow of the daily relationship. They’re important. The city is appreciative. And we’re happy to help. They’re the kinds of things that should and must go on for the betterment of the entire community.
But doesn’t the media tend to focus on other things?
In recent years, there’s been a lot of interest in the various land use issues, as well as the fair share referendum. I think it’s inevitable, frankly, that there will be some stress involving land use, zoning and development. But it’s incumbent upon all of us to work through these issues in a constructive manner, because at the end of the day, how could you argue with the statement “We’re all in this together"? And to a large degree it’s true that the success of the community is tied to the success of the University and vice versa.
Can you cite one troubling public misperception regarding Northwestern?
“Northwestern doesn’t pay taxes.” The truth is the University pays quite a bit in taxes and fees. In 2002, for instance, it paid Evanston more than $4 million in fees for inspections, licenses, building permits, athletic ticket sales, parking permits and electricity, among other things. Northwestern, by virtue of state law, doesn’t pay real estate tax, that’s true. But over the years, especially in last 30 years, the University has sold off a tremendous amount of property, generating $5 million in annual property taxes.
Can you compare the Evanston relationship to the University’s relationship with the City of Chicago?
In Chicago, Northwestern is obviously not as big a fish. We probably have less interaction with Chicago on fewer issues and they tend to be more narrow and episodic.
Any final thoughts?
I hope folks in Evanston would appreciate the many positives Northwestern brings to the area. I urge them to take advantage of all the services and functions the University offers that make its presence special, the music and theatre performances, the athletics, the speakers and so forth. These events enrich the community and it’s relatively easy to take advantage of them. Take a look at the open job opportunities. Northwestern is the city’s second largest employer. We’re always looking for talented people with diverse skills.