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Elgin debates future of Hemmens Cultural Center

The city-owned Hemmens  Cultural Center Elgin.  | Sun-Times Medifile

The city-owned Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: March 19, 2013 6:16AM

First in a two-part series on Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center, from its present state to what its future might be.

Functionally obsolete. The phrase is used often at city hall and city council meetings when describing the Hemmens Cultural Arts Center.

When Elgin City Manger Sean Stegall uses that phrase, however, it doesn’t mean the city-owned Hemmens is “not functioning, is broken or is in bad condition,” and should fall to a wrecking ball.

As it is, Stegall said, the 1,200-seat Hemmens works as a 44-year-old building should.

A “functionally obsolete” Hemmens is like comparing a tube TV to an HDTV, Stegall said. A tube TV can’t be hooked up to a Blu Ray player, laptop, or streaming video services — at least without purchasing a slew of special adapters.

However, when that tube TV is working well it will still connect to a DVD player, VCR, stereo and cable, too — and do the job it is supposed to: show video and play audio. It’s just missing the bells and whistles of the newest technology.

“You would have a hard time renting a tube TV to anyone” interested in a high-quality, modern performance, Stegall said.

The question is — does Elgin want a tube TV, an upgrade to big-screen HDTV, or no TV at all?

The Hemmens Cultural Arts Center’s future viability became a topic around city hall in the mid-2000s, when the city and Elgin Symphony Orchestra began tossing around the idea of a new performing arts center to replace the Hemmens. That idea died out as the economy turned south.

Even before then, in the 1980s, the city had commissioned a study about replacing the Hemmens, which was built in 1969 for $2 million, including a $1.25 million bequest from the estate of namesake Hattie Hemmens of Elgin. But the $125 million price, combined with a recession at the time, dimmed hopes for that 2,000-seat project.

During 2012 budget discussions, in what Stegall called an “experiment,” Elgin decided to discontinue city-sponsored performances (called a presenting season) at the Hemmens, made the building rental-only for everyone who uses it, and stopped providing discounts — 35 percent to non-profits and 45 percent to the ESO.

By taking away any subsidies for the building and arts programs there, Stegall said, the city was better able to understand what its real costs are.

Residents have been very vocal to him, saying they want to see a presenting season come back to the Hemmens, Stegall said.

Ties to the ESO

The future of Hemmens also goes hand-in-hand with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, he said.

Stegall met last week with David Bearden, the ESO’s volunteer chief executive officer. In that meeting, Stegall asked for a payment plan on what is now a $230,000 to $240,000 bill the city says the symphony owes it for renting Hemmens. That bill has been left unpaid since May 2011.

Until a repayment plan is presented to the city, Stegall said, it is impossible for the city council to consider a funding request from the ESO for $150,000 per year for three consecutive years.

Bearden told the council on Jan. 23 that the ESO could continue operating without city funding. He also said the Hemmens is neither too big or too small for its current needs. “It is just right,” Bearden told council.

Stegall and Hemmens manager Butch Wilhelmi both noted that the ESO does bring a certain prestige to Elgin and a viability to the Hemmens.

But if the ESO were to close down for any reason, Wilhelmi believes the Hemmens could replace many of those dates with other paid, rental events.

“We’d have to change some of our business plan, but we would be able to remain open,” Wilhelmi said.

At the same time, without the ESO playing there it would likely be impossible to convince the council and voters to fund and build a replacement performing arts center, Stegall said.

The obsolete part

Symphony or no symphony, there are problems with the existing Hemmens, Stegall said.

By “functionally obsolete,” Stegall said, he also means that in 2013 terms, the building is ill-served to compete for a bigger portion of local entertainment dollars without modern technology upgrades.

It does still serve the needs of those who use it now quite well, however, Stegall noted. Regular renters include children’s theatre companies, dance schools, vintage clothing expos, dance competitions and musical acts.

But the Hemmens is too small to attract larger popular acts — and too big for the small venues wanted by other, smaller productions, Stegall said.

Hemmens also is an energy hog. The entrance has single-pane glass and an “interesting” heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, according to Stegall.

Its basement-level bathrooms — the only public restrooms — are accessible by one small elevator. It has a small, badly placed loading dock, and water in the basement has been a problem for several years.

But beyond those problems, the Hemmens’ two levels — Exhibition Hall and the main stage, “have been fully paid for and done what they are supposed to do,” Stegall said.

However, the “technical needs of putting on shows, the demands and the requirements … continue to grow and grow,” he added.

As the building continues to age, “you are not going to be able to get the same return on investment as it has in the past,” Stegall said.

Many issues

The list of issues is long.

Those basement bathrooms need remodeling — an impractical solution in this day and age of disability access.

There is no room in the building’s existing shell to add first-floor bathrooms, Wilhelmi noted.

There is no elevator to get products or equipment into Exhibition Hall — just a long cement ramp. Semis bringing in shows cannot back up into the loading dock and must sit at a 90-degree angle to the entrance.

“Load in is not easy and it is not adequate for large events,” Wilhelmi said. “Set up has gotten more and more elaborate.”

Exhibition Hall’s floors are water-damaged, and water continues to seep in when the water table is high. The city is seeking bids to fix that floor in August.

Neither is the basement acoustically separated from the main floor — making it difficult to offer programming on both levels at the same time and thus fully utilize the building.

Ten years ago, those problems were just an inconvenience, Stegall said. Now, they prevent full usage of the facility.

“We need to get the community focused on … you have to come to grips with this if we want to be in the performing arts business,” Stegall said.

In other words, the city needs to decide whether it wants to keep the Hemmens as is as an arts and entertainment venue, construct a new facility, or get out of the arts business altogether, he said.

Still, renters keep coming, and fill up the building on most weekends other than holidays and August, when indoor arts programming doesn’t often happen.

“The level of customer service that Butch and his staff provide … is top tier. That makes up for some of the deficiencies of the building.

They provide the Ritz-Carlton of services,” and renters are willing to overlook other issues to get that, Stegall said.

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