Belsky defends $2.1M Highland Park Theater buy
Former Highland Park Mayor Michael Belsky is defending the city's purchase of the now-shuttered Highland Park Theater. | Michael Jarecki~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 5, 2013 9:17PM
HIGHLAND PARK — With city officials taking some heat over the costly decision to purchase the now-shuttered Highland Park Theater, former Mayor Michael Belsky is defending the move to purchase the theater for $2.1 million in 2009.
Belsky also is defending former city administrators against suggestions they withheld information about the condition of the 88-year-old theater.
A Facility Assessment Report, prepared by UGL Equis Corp. for the City of Highland Park in mid-2008, pegged the cost of correcting code violations and addressing long-deferred maintenance issues at $2.7 million. However, city officials say that report was never presented to the council. It’s existence reportedly came to light only after the city last spring hired the law firm of Sidley & Austin LLC to conduct a probe of operations in the building and public works departments.
According to Mayor Nancy Rotering, the firm interviewed past and current employees and reviewed hundreds of thousands of city records, policies and procedures.
In May of 2012, the city abruptly closed the theater, and temporarily closed the Port Clinton parking garage, citing code violations.
Coming out swinging, Belsky said, “If the public should be concerned about anything unethical, I would put a mirror up to the sitting mayor and city council. First, why was there no public discussion about the expenditure of tax dollars on a major study of past practices?,” he said, speaking of the probe by Sidley & Austin.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Assistant City Manager Ghida Neukirch said the review by Sidley & Austin did not result in a public, written report. Rather, the firm verbally presented a list of best practices that City Manager David Knapp presented to the council in December. Those included, among other things: Outside oversight of building and fire inspection services as needed; adequate training and certification of building inspectors; enforced compliance with city policies on outside employment; and safeguards to allow employees to voice concerns without fear of reprisals.
In response to the FOIA request, the city did provide the 2008 report from UGL Equis.
The city last year entered into an exclusive agreement with developers Steve Korol and Daniel Slack to further explore their development proposal for the site. The proposal calls for preserving an arts venue and developing a 45-unit condominium building with ground-floor retail space.
But last month, the developers’ financing proposal, requiring an estimated $7 million in city subsidies, received a chilly reception during a council committee meeting. The developers’ agreement is set to expire Feb. 27, leaving the city free to explore other options.
In defense of the theater purchase, Belsky noted the owner planned to convert the financially struggling theater to offices and the business community was set to lose the 50,000 visitors who may dine and shop downtown while taking in a movie.
The council also was motivated by other considerations, such as appeals from preservationists and arts groups desiring a live performance venue.
Because the theater was located next to a municipal parking lot, the strategic purchase also reserved the property for a larger redevelopment in the event the theater renovation was not feasible, he said.
Belsky also disputed that the purchase was a waste of taxpayer money. He contended the purchase was financed with $750,000 in funds generated by an expired downtown Tax Increment Financing District. The balance came from a new 5 percent tax on the Ravinia Festival’s gross receipts, with much of that money coming from non-residents.
Speaking of the Equis study, Belsky said, “The study in question, in my recollection, was conducted to negotiate the purchase of the building at a fair price and to provide Writer’s Theatre, an interested party at the time, with an assessment of the cost of renovating the building.” He made his points in a written piece submitted to the Highland Park News.
Belsky said Writer’s Theatre subsequently received an offer of financial assistance from the Village of Glencoe, “an indication that (municipalities) do routinely make investments in the cultural arts.”