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Article updated: 3/15/2013 7:15 PM

Naperville chamber writes letter to council some call 'scathing'

By Justin Kmitch

Questions about who has naming rights for the proposed Water Street development in downtown Naperville appeared to be put to rest after last week's city council meeting.

But now a tersely worded letter to the council from the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce has brought the debate back to life and may be creating a rift between the two groups.

Councilman Grant Wehrli at a meeting earlier this month said he would support the proposed $95 million project only if developer Marquette Companies agreed not to use "Riverwalk" in the name of any of its structures.

The project, which will be built near a portion of the Riverwalk, will include a hotel, parking garage, restaurants, shops and offices.

"The city has worked hard with blood, sweat and tears to get that Riverwalk where it is," Wehrli said at the time. "I don't want to see anybody commercializing it with a name of 'Riverwalk' anything."

Marquette officials quickly agreed not to use the word, but council members voted 5-4 to reject such naming restrictions.

Just when it appeared the mini-firestorm was over, the chamber stoked the flames Thursday with what some called a "scathing" letter to the council, criticizing Wehrli and those who supported him on the naming issue as "anti-business."

The flare-up is the first between city officials and chamber President and CEO Mike Evans, who took the helm in December.

"The council is not elected to be a marketing committee for Naperville's private sector, or to individually review and bless the names and affairs of businesses at public meetings. This is an example of government overreach and undue regulation," Evans wrote in the letter. "Does a plurality of the council believe it is truly appropriate to begin prohibiting companies and organizations from using any part of the words 'Naperville,' 'Main Street,' '5th Avenue,' 'Riverwalk,' or 'Downtown,' in their names? The list of potential restrictions could extend in perpetuity and without end. No reasonable individual would look at any business past, present or future, named 'Naperville X,' or 'Riverwalk Y,' to be an endorsed unit of the city of Naperville."

Evans said it was necessary for the chamber to assert itself because members felt the discussion over naming rights was a drastic change of direction from previous positions.

"Our legislative priorities, which were established well before my coming here, clearly state we will actively oppose any regulations and undue burden on the private sector. All we were doing was recommunicating something that has been well known," Evans said.

"I've read the letter multiple times and I don't feel it was as scathing or harsh as certain folks may feel. I thought the best approach was to lay all of our cards on the table and say, 'Guys, we think this conversation, because of the close nature of the vote, should be taking place. We don't feel this is the appropriate conversation for elected officials to be having.'"

Wehrli, who called himself a "pro-business guy," did not appreciate the letter.

"I've reached out to the chamber to have a conversation because it appears Mike Evans is bringing his Bolingbrook skills to Naperville, including the writing of what I would call a barbed-wirey letter," Wehrli said. "Mike is new to the city and the chamber and the city, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt and have a conversation with him. Instead of being standoffish, let's talk about it. If he intends to run the chamber this way, he's going to have some challenges before him."

Councilman Bob Fieseler called the letter "heavy-handed" and "surprising," especially because the council ultimately disagreed with Wehrli.

"It's surprising to me that this has been taken up as a litmus test on whether elected officials are pro-business or not. If there was some leftover sentiment in six months that the council was thinking they should have naming rights, bring it to us then when we're not in the midst of financial discussions and the midst of an election," Fieseler said. "But I do think because this is a public-private endeavor, we've already established there may be some potential endorsement and this would almost emphasize or lead people to believe there was some sort of business relationship that involved the Riverwalk Commission."

Councilman Paul Hinterlong called the chamber's letter "scathing" but said he agrees with its position. He also thought Wehrli's would be a hard position to defend considering the city already is home to such businesses as Riverwalk Lighting and Riverwalk Dentistry.

"I voted with Grant initially because I agreed with him and knew he was passionate about it. But when the developer wasn't at all passionate about it, I wasn't going to let it interfere with my support for the project," Hinterlong said. "As for the letter, it may have been a little harsh, but I certainly understand where they're coming from and the message they're trying to convey."

Evans again defended his letter, saying the chamber was "pressed to write it" by the council's conversation.

"We thought it was so uncharacteristic of the city council we have traditionally seen," Evans said. "We were alarmed by the close nature of this discussion and we needed to let them know the chamber hasn't gone away. If an organization like the chamber of commerce doesn't react to an alarming discussion that impacts business, what are we doing?"

Evans said he and Wehrli plan to meet Monday to discuss their positions.

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