COD hopefuls suggest review, changes at Waterleaf

Editor's note: Due to the large number of candidates in the COD board race, we're not always able to include all their positions in every election-related story we publish, but we encourage them to post comments at the end of this story to provide their views.

In the wake of growing financial losses at College of DuPage's Waterleaf restaurant and the revelation that some school administrators dined there on the taxpayers' dime, several candidates running for the board of trustees say an analysis needs to be done to determine whether the fine-dining restaurant should continue operation.

The 130-seat Waterleaf, which opened in October 2011 on COD's Glen Ellyn campus, has never made a profit. College officials have confirmed the restaurant has lost a total of more than $1.8 million.

“The Waterleaf is yet another example of how the current board has fallen down on the job,” said Deanne Mazzochi, one of 12 candidates vying for three seats on the college's board in next month's election.

“The Illinois Public Community College Act is explicit that auxiliary services like these must be self-sustaining and directed to the students and staff,” the Elmhurst resident said. “The Waterleaf fits neither requirement.”

Meanwhile, a government watchdog group — the Edgar County Watchdogs — recently revealed that administrators and board members used taxpayers' money on meals and drinks for themselves at the Waterleaf.

“I don't think the board and administration should be eating lavish meals and drinking fine wine at the taxpayers' expense,” said candidate Frank Napolitano, adding that another COD restaurant — Wheat Café — appears to be doing a better job of providing students with education and work experience. “I don't believe the school should throw good money after bad just to maintain the Waterleaf.”

Napolitano and Mazzochi, who are running on a slate with candidate Charles Bernstein of Wheaton, say the board must take action to understand why the restaurant has lost money.

Other candidates in the race agree.

“I will be in a position to opine on closing the Waterleaf restaurant only after a cost/benefit analysis study is done, with the primary intended benefits, of course, being education — not cultural,” said Roger Kempa of Darien.

Candidate Dan Bailey said there needs to be an accounting of all of the assets and liabilities of the venture with the disclosure of all financial facts, including operating costs and existing contracts with vendors.

“Based on those numbers, we would decide either to stop throwing good money after bad and close it or ... lease the operation to another concessionaire in an open bidding process,” the Wheaton resident said.

The seven other candidates in the race are Claire Ball of Addison, David Carlin of Naperville, Matt Gambs of Naperville, Sandra Pihos of Glen Ellyn, incumbent Nancy Svoboda of Downers Grove, incumbent Kim Savage of Darien, and Joseph M. Wozniak of Naperville.

During the campaign, Savage and Svoboda have defended the Waterleaf and the six-room Inn at Water's Edge hotel. Svoboda said decisions in regard to the future of either facility are complex.

“Each is presently integrated into the college curriculum in some fashion and into programming for the MAC (McAninch Arts Center) and the COD Foundation,” Svoboda said. “Any repurposing of either facility needs to be carefully handled out of respect to taxpayer money already spent and programming already completed.”

Savage said the restaurant and hotel are providing a real-world learning experience for students.

“One of the things that has been lost in all of the controversy is that having full-service restaurants as part of a professional culinary education program is actually quite common,” Savage said. “Chicago is one of the premier dining destinations in North America. What we need to do is to make sure that all of the components of our culinary program are meeting the needs of the students in our professional degree and certificate tracks.”

Still, Svoboda said she supports a study of how effective the Waterleaf and Inn at Water's Edge are at meeting “the educational needs of students, the impact on the college's budget, and their role in fulfilling the mission of the college.”

“If such examination determines the restaurant and inn should be maintained, modified or closed,” she said, “I would be supportive of the recommendations.”

Carlin pointed out that “technically” every part of COD is subsidized by tax dollars and operates at a loss.

“If I'm elected to the board of trustees,” he said, “I'll thoroughly evaluate the Waterleaf and all spending to make sure valuable resources are spent in a way that benefits COD's students and the community as a whole.”

If the Waterleaf is to remain open, Ball said she wants it used to teach students during more days of the week.

Right now, the restaurant is operated as “a learning lab” for students twice a week, officials said. The rest of the time, it's run by a professional staff.

“The restaurant is showing to be a major drain on the financial resources of the college, but it's already built and can be of educational value to the students — if they are allowed to use it more than two days a week,” Ball said. “Overall, I want to devote the restaurant to actual student use, with significant operational and managerial changes.”

Wozniak, who opposes closing the Waterleaf, said he would seek to extend student training days at the Waterleaf by one extra day, from Monday through Wednesday.

“I would also ask the board to consider leasing out the Waterleaf from Thursday through Sunday to the highest bidder, which would help bring in income for COD to offset the cost of using it for educational purposes the other days of the week,” Wozniak said. “The Waterleaf needs financial changes, but it should not be closed.”

Pihos said COD officials might want to consult with directors of other culinary programs and find out what they're doing right. They also could reach out to area chefs to see if they could serve as consultants “to brainstorm solutions to the dilemma” COD is facing with the Waterleaf.

“We have some of the most famous business minds and chefs in the restaurant industry in the Chicagoland area,” Pihos said. “I would hope that they would want to promote creating a skilled workforce in their industry that they can tap into.”

Bernstein said other options the college could consider include changing the restaurant format to appeal to a broader clientele base, finding a proven restaurant manager to run it, finding a party to lease the space or turning Waterleaf into additional classroom space.

“If the restaurant remains open, it needs to be used exclusively for students' education and work experience,” Napolitano said. “If the restaurant cannot be self-supporting, it should be repurposed.”

But Gambs said it wouldn't be prudent business to shut down the Waterleaf without a plan for the future.

“Like a business, though, its losses must be cut back and the building must be returned to its primary purpose — educating students for careers,” said Gambs, adding the restaurant shouldn't be “a playground for administrators' indulgences.”

“I would immediately suspend all house or college accounts,” he said. “I would request that we make the students the focus and the face of both restaurants. The menu and marketing can and should be modified to reflect the broader community.”

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