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updated: 4/6/2011 3:46 PM

Wheaton Grand's failure puts heat on downtown

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  • The future of the Wheaton Grand Theater might have been determined Tuesday when 56 percent of city voters chose not to support a referendum proposal that would have allocated up to $150,000 a year to help fund renovations at the 86-year-old facility.

       The future of the Wheaton Grand Theater might have been determined Tuesday when 56 percent of city voters chose not to support a referendum proposal that would have allocated up to $150,000 a year to help fund renovations at the 86-year-old facility.
    SCOTT SANDERS | Staff Photographer

 
 

Wheaton City Councilman Todd Scalzo knew from the start that an advisory referendum he introduced to help fund Wheaton Grand Theater renovations faced an uphill battle.

So when 56 percent of voters in Tuesday's election rejected a proposal that would have set aside up to $150,000 a year for the venerable 86-year-old theater, he wasn't surprised.

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"The issue has had a long history and there were a lot of people I talked to who had their mind made up against it," he said. "There were a lot of people who took the attitude that it would have happened by now (if it were viable). Now you're going into that headwind and making the best case for it."

In unofficial results posted Tuesday, 4,528 voters rejected the plan and 3,576 supported it.

Additionally, the two city council candidates who had been the most vocal opponents of the referendum were elected to office. Jeanne Ives and Evelyn Pacino Sanguinetti said the referendum was too vague and the money could be used elsewhere. The two new council members will take their seats alongside Scalzo May 2.

Scalzo said one of his frustrations with the campaign was that the most outspoken of the referendum's critics did not offer any alternative ideas when it came to establishing an economic engine downtown.

"It's not like there were people saying let's put a roller coaster on the other side of downtown instead," he said Wednesday. "The only one I heard was sidewalks and I don't think that is what the answer is to bring traffic downtown."

City Councilman Tom Mouhelis agreed but said the city had to prioritize funding public services before anything else.

"Would I like other things in the community? Sure," he said. "In an ideal world financially, it would be great. Unfortunately, we are not in an ideal world."

"I was not in favor of a subsidy for an entity where we have to give $150,000 per year," he said. "Am I a supporter of the arts? Sure I am, but at what cost? I cannot provide everything for everybody."

But for many people, the discussion about the theater was much more than just one about the arts. City councilman and mayoral candidate John Prendiville, who lost in his bid to unseat incumbent Mike Gresk, said the referendum's failure could bring development downtown to a halt.

"The people have spoken and they do not think the city government should be supporting economic development downtown," he said. "The theater is the only engine of economic development on the table."

After falling behind on a loan payment by about $800,000, Wheaton Grand Theater Corp. officials gave up the theater's deed to Suburban Bank and Trust Co. last July.

In January, Scalzo introduced the referendum in hopes of finding out what residents wanted to see downtown.

Prendiville agreed with Scalzo that fixing sidewalks will not fix downtown.

"While I think we need good infrastructure, that is not going to bring people downtown and support our businesses and create a good business environment," he said.

As the hopes for a public-private partnership fade, Prendiville said the chances of a private entity sweeping in to save the theater are slim to none.

"It is a deterrent and the history is that nothing has happened of any substance without city support in the last 30 years," he said. "If the city has given the indication that it will not support a private entity downtown, it will be awful tough. It is very disappointing."

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