Does Naperville have enough venues for the arts, meetings?
David Sharos For The Sun December 25, 2012 10:28PM
The new Wentz Concert Hall was one of the NCC projects ushered through during Harold Wilde's presidency. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times Mei-Ann Chen, the new music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, conducting a rehearsal at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: January 27, 2013 6:25AM
Given its size, Naperville seems like the kind of place that could support a major meeting space or venue in its downtown area where theater-goers or those attending major conferences could also patronize local businesses and restaurants.
Naperville’s Julie Kornak, co-founder of the BrightSide Theatre, a relatively new not-for-profit group that was incorporated in 2009, currently is forced to rent space at North Central College and has seen other theater groups come and go because the city lacks a dedicated arts venue.
“Actually, about 10 years ago I was involved with a group called ‘Theater Eclectic’ that was renting space on Ogden Avenue and eventually it was dissolved because things became too pricy,” Kornak said. “Naperville is a huge community and when you look at places like Rockford or even Aurora next to us, there are performance and meeting spaces they’ve been able to maintain. Not having that has probably hurt the performing arts here.”
This year, the Children’s Museum is moving its annual Bubble Bash celebration to the Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College. T.J. Hicks, director of integrated brand marketing for the museum, said lack of space at the Children’s Museum forced officials to move the event elsewhere due to internal construction issues.
“We’ve actually had to move Bubble Bash before, like in 2007 when we had our 20th anniversary of the Children’s Museum and went to Aurora’s Paramount Theater,” Hicks said. “This is our 25th year anniversary, and we’re currently finishing construction of our Smart Café in the lower level and so we lack the space for a huge crowd.”
Hicks admits that Children’s Museum productions are deliberately scaled down due to space issues and that, like many other groups, partnerships and alternative venues have been secured over the years since the city doesn’t provide a centrally located venue.
“We work a lot with Edward Hospital and also Washington Junior High School across the street from there,” Hicks said. “We also have a strong relationship with the college which allows us to rent Wentz Hall at a sizeable fee, although we do get some discount due to our not-for-profit status.”
Special events coordinator for the city of Naperville Jennifer Runestad said virtually all of the groups she works with “established their own venues” over the years, eliminating the need for the city to find alternatives.
“Some people have brought up the issue of a city venue, but that’s not something we typically deal with,” she said. Similarly, Marcie Schatz, deputy city manager, said many groups already enjoy “a great partnership regarding venues for special events” but that the idea of establishing a dedicated venue inside Naperville “has been a point of interest over the last 10 years.”
“Our strategic plan has included discussions about creating a new venue, although we have never settled on a location or had the recommendation to pursue this,” she said. “There has been interest for a decade about having a large-scale 1,000-person ballroom perhaps located along the I-88 corridor. There were discussions as recently as this fall about such a venue at the Freedom Plaza (near I-88).”
Last year, the Naperville City Council turned thumbs-down on a plan that would have included an Embassy Suites Hotel with a small conference center and a CRL Alzheimer’s care facility along Interstate 88.
The conference center was one of the most attractive parts of the plan, city officials said, as it would have offered a 1,000-seat capacity. Concerns about the Alzheimer’s facility killed the proposal.
Another plan to add space, this time for the arts, was shot down by the Council in 2009. The gigantic Omnia project was the cause of great debate throughout the city. The $200 million development would have included three theaters (one each with 2,700 seats, 950 seats, and 200 seats), as well as condos, townhouses, commercial space and an underground parking garage near Naperville’s downtown train station.
Concerns about its size, financing and more scuttled the project.
President of the Naperville Development Partnership Christine Jeffries argues that Naperville continues to do a great job addressing “the sweet spot” in the venue market and that “the theater district within North Central College” serves the majority of needs and should be regarded “as a gift to the city.”
“People forget that Wentz Hall didn’t cost taxpayers a dime, and if you want a building, you’re talking about TIF districts and paying a lot of money to build and maintain something,” Jeffries said. “We now have the Res-Rec center (at the college) where they had 2,000 people for the college’s 150th anniversary, and they’ll be hosting the NCAA indoor track events,” Jeffries said. “Places like Tellabs have been wonderful helping out with events like ‘Soups On’ and ‘Cuisine for a Cause’ where you need a lot more space.”
Criticisms levied against the Naperville Chamber of Commerce really aren’t fair, Jeffries said, since the membership is not just based in the city and is therefore not obligated to follow municipal boundaries.
“Someone who is a member in Lisle or beyond has just as much right to host an event and members of the Chamber should each get their fair share,” she said. “The Chamber should get a pass. Groups like ours that are more parochial are the ones that can be questioned, but is there really a need? You can’t keep a 1,000-person venue filled every night and a lot of the bigger places get subdivided anyway into 250-seat halls. You can’t keep something larger filled in this economy.”
Kornak still insists it would be “great to have more options” given that rents at some existing venues are high and that coordinating schedules around other events can be a problem.
“It’s surprising that as big as it is, Naperville doesn’t have a central place, but those of us in theater don’t know all the ins and outs other than space is always an issue,” she said.