Mayor Matt Bogusz has hinged revitalizing downtown, with its empty storefronts and shuttered businesses, on a plan to spend millions on renovating the dilapidated Des Plaines Theatre.
Residents and business owners want the dormant theater reopened, and a successful suburban promoter says the market is primed for the stage to again feature live entertainment.
But skeptics, including Bogusz's challenger in the April 4 election, and some aldermen question whether pumping taxpayer money into the theater -- staking the city in the entertainment business -- is fiscally responsible.
Results on Election Day could prove consequential to the downtown's future, because Bogusz, if elected, would need to sell his proposal to the city council.
"The intention is to control the destiny of the downtown -- to renovate the downtown theater and make it operational," Bogusz said.
While city officials continue hammering out details of an agreement for aldermen to consider, Bogusz's plan has two parts.
Rivers Casino would match the city up to $2 million to purchase the theater and complete renovations, as well as commit $50,000 annually for five years toward operations.
Then city leaders want to develop a downtown restaurant district using an incentive program approved last year in which business owners can apply for up to $100,000 to open new eateries. No restaurant owners have applied for the incentive, though city officials predict more interest once plans for the theater develop.
The city would hire an operator to book acts and run day-to-day operations. Early on, city officials talked to Ron Onesti, a concert promoter and operator of the Arcada Theatre in downtown St. Charles, but the two sides haven't spoken in months as movement on the proposal stalled publicly.
Still, Onesti wants to include Des Plaines in long-term plans to operate a string of suburban theaters. He will soon open a 300-seat restaurant and music hall concept in downtown Evanston at the shuttered concert venue 27 Live.
"I believe in Des Plaines as much as St. Charles a decade ago," Onesti said. "We're sold out almost every weekend in St. Charles. I talk to customers and it's amazing just how many people are from Des Plaines."
Alderman Malcolm Chester, who hopes to unseat Bogusz in next month's election, cautioned the city could be on the hook for more costs if the theater is developed. Neighboring buildings remain vacant and parking is scattered across downtown, he said.
"The number could be driven up very easily," Chester said. "Residents said 'We like the theater, but don't want to spend a lot.'"
The two candidates seeking to replace 1st Ward Alderman Patti Haugeberg, whose ward includes the theater, also question the proposal. Mark Lysakowski, a PepsiCo sales representative and business owner, worries about the city's liability.
"I think it would be better for a developer to develop that and make it happen," Lysakowski said. "The city's got a lot of stuff to worry about other than run the theater."
Steven Mokry, a library board member, says the proposed agreement with Rivers Casino is better than what's there now, but he doubts the theater would succeed.
"You have zero success in there right now," Mokry said. "You're not even selling popcorn out of the thing."
Other aldermanic candidates have varying opinions on the plan. Bob Porada, who's running for 7th Ward alderman, told voters he'd "refuse to spend one penny of your money on someone else's property," in a Daily Herald candidate questionnaire.
His opponents, 7th Ward Alderman Don Smith, as well as 3rd Ward Alderman Denise Rodd, support the mayor's plan, but they want more specifics about costs and operations.
Rodd's opponent, Gene Fregetto, a retired university professor and expert in urban planning, supports the public-private partnership if the plan includes developing downtown as an entertainment center.
"Simply to renovate the theater in isolation from developing the rest of downtown will end in failure," Fregetto said.