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Article updated: 2/6/2014 5:07 AM

Chicago Symphony considering DuPage forest preserve sites

By Robert Sanchez

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is searching for a permanent outdoor venue in DuPage County where it can perform summer concerts.

Encouraged by the success of its performances last year at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, county officials say, the CSO has narrowed its list to four potential sites.

But two of those sites are on land owned by the DuPage Forest Preserve District and that will pose legal problems for those hoping to build an outdoor concert venue here.

The district's attorney, Jim Knippen, has researched the question and determined the forest preserve commission doesn't have the legal authority to lease its land to a private entity for a private purpose. If commissioners want to pursue such an agreement, Knippen said, they will have to pursue changes to state law.

The legal opinion, which commissioners received Tuesday, applies to the symphony "despite its value as a cultural treasure," Knippen said in a one-page summary.

"Would I like the Chicago Symphony to be out here? Yes," forest preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti Jr. said. "But it can't be on forest preserve property."

Pierotti said he met several months ago with representatives from the CSO and Choose DuPage, the county's public-private economic development group. He then assigned forest preserve Commissioner Tim Whelan to participate in the discussions because the Danada Forest Preserve was the first district-owned site the CSO considered. Danada is located in Wheaton, which is part of the area Whelan represents.

The symphony is interested in leasing at least 40 acres from the forest preserve for a concert venue and parking, Pierotti said. "They want to make it similar to Ravinia," he said.

During subsequent meetings, other district-owned sites were examined, including Hidden Lake near Downers Grove and St. James Farm near Warrenville.

Before discussions progressed any further, Pierotti directed Knippen to prepare a legal opinion.

According to that opinion, the Downstate Forest Preserve Act prohibits the district from leasing or selling land. Before the district could lease property to the CSO, the state law would have to be amended to allow the lease.

Pierotti said the district shouldn't be a land bank for any organization. He said voters approved tax increases so the district can acquire property for open space -- not for redevelopment.

But Pierotti also acknowledges it's up to the full commission to decide whether it considers the CSO idea to be an exception.

Whelan said he believes having a band shell for the CSO on district-owned land "comes more than close to the culture and educational part of our mission." He said the board should at least consider the idea.

"Having that legal opinion and knowing there is a possibility that the CSO wants to look at forest preserve land," Whelan said, "I think we need to have the discussion with our constituents and civic leaders as to whether it's beneficial for us to move forward to get a legislative change."

Of course, it could be months before that discussion takes place. That's because the CSO hasn't formally requested land from the district.

"They're not even going to have their engineering report completed for another couple months," Whelan said. "And their board still has to act to be able to take a step forward."

Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli, who is running for forest preserve president against fellow Commissioner Joe Cantore in the March 18 Republican primary, said she's "always open" to having a discussion.

However, she said the mission of the district is clear. "I think any instance of taking over forest preserve land that is intended to be natural for pavement or construction doesn't seem very worthy," Wehrli said.

Cantore could not be reached for comment.

Founded in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs in downtown Chicago at Symphony Center along Michigan Avenue, while also conducting a regular summer season at Ravinia in Highland Park.

Representatives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association have said that won't change if a DuPage location is found. They said expanding into the Western suburbs would supplement what they're already doing.

If the symphony were to have a regular presence in DuPage, Whelan and county board member board Paul Fichtner both said it would be significant.

"DuPage is already a great place to live and work," Fichtner said. "Having a summer home for the CSO would make DuPage a premier cultural destination as well. I hope we can all work together to keep all site options open."

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