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Hemmens Task Force to look at direction for aging Elgin arts facility

A task force is forming decide future city-owned  Hemmens Cultural Center downtown Elgin. | Sun-Times Medifile

A task force is forming to decide the future of the city-owned Hemmens Cultural Center in downtown Elgin. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: March 22, 2014 6:26AM

ELGIN — There are residents here who know a lot about the arts, arts programming and the local need for venues such as the city-owned Hemmens Cultural Center.

The city is asking people with those areas of expertise to step up and help Elgin and the Hemmens staff determine future strategies for the aging downtown facility.

Applications are being accepted for the Hemmens Cultural Center Task Force. Suggested by the city council and Mayor David Kaptain last fall, the task force was officially commissioned at the Jan. 22 meeting and hopes to begin meeting in late March or early April. Applications are being accepted through March 3.

The task force will “examine the long-term facility and programming needs related to the Hemmens Cultural Center … responsible for providing recommendations to the major and city council regarding the future needs and uses of” the Hemmens, according to the task force application.

The 13-member committee should include technical experts in performing arts and facility management as well as additional community members, patrons and facility renters who have an interest in the Hemmens, the application document goes on to say.

The arts facility has been discussed extensively since about 2008, said Cherie Murphy, assistant to the city manager for community engagement. At that time, with a stronger economy, the discussion was whether to replace the facility with a symphony hall.

“It started when the (Elgin Symphony Orchestra) and the city were looking at a new hall. That is when the conversation sort of started,” Murphy said.

It is also when the term “functionally obsolete” first came up in terms of the building, which opened its doors in 1969.

Overall, the building is in excellent condition, both Murphy and Hemmens manager Butch Wilhelmi said. But built 45 years ago, the facility doesn’t meet some of the requirements for bringing larger acts with more sophisticated needs.

“The Hemmens serves its purpose,” Murphy said.

Economic hit

The economy faltered in late 2008, and the largest Hemmens user — the Elgin Symphony Orchestra — saw economic realities similar to other small symphonies across the country. City funding for the ESO was cut, and the organization’s other revenues sagged as the money it owed Elgin in back rent continued piling up. The city and the ESO worked out an agreement last fall to allow the symphony to continue performing at the Hemmens.

While not the only performer at the facility, the ESO is among the most visible.

Since budget cuts in 2012, the city no longer sponsors a “presenting season” at the facility — which had meant offering musical, comedy and other acts produced and underwritten by the city.

Still, the Hemmens is booked with ESO performances, local theater groups and a plethora of local dance schools.

Whether the city needs or wants a new facility, and whether Elgin should support a presenting season, are among the discussions that need to take place, Murphy said.

“We need to start planning for the future, and we need to find out not just the structural and technical aspects of the Hemmens, but what does the community want for the arts and what do those who use and rent it want,” she said.

“We make no assumptions, but will look at objectively,” Murphy said.

The task force will be asked to look at the facility’s needs for the next 10 to 20 years, including staffing levels and programming.

That staff — including Wilhelmi — do more for the city than just operate the Hemmens, Murphy noted. The staff sets up sound, lighting and staging for everything from the Nightmare on Chicago Street Halloween festival to the Fox Trot race each Memorial Day weekend. They also set up sound and recordings for city council meetings.

Of the Hemmens’ budget, two-thirds is staff cost, Wilhelmi said.

“Our staff does … a myriad of special events. We are the (audio-visual) support for city hall, public works, arts showcase, the police department. We are the free safety that gets pulled in all different directions,” Wilhelmi said.

With just three full-time employees, most of that work is done by permanent part-time and part-time employees, he added.

Until the task force recommendations are in place, the staff has been at a standstill, unable to bring in acts or performers, Wilhelmi said.

“We want to be able to start moving forward, but have been waiting for the task force to make recommendations. We can continuing what we are doing, or go back to what we were doing,” he said.

“The task force needs to bring to the council what is the acceptable subsidy or loss or investment in the arts. What is the Hemmens is going to be,” Wilhelmi said.

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