COD's Waterleaf faces uncertain future
College of DuPage's controversial Waterleaf restaurant is facing an uncertain future as school trustees work to determine if it should be rented out, closed or used more for student instruction.
The fine-dining restaurant has been a focal point in the ongoing troubles at the Glen Ellyn-based community college, which is dealing with state and federal investigations and questions about its spending practices.
Since opening in October 2011, the 130-seat restaurant has never made a profit and has lost more than $2 million, officials said.
It also became a symbol of excess at COD when it was revealed that school administrators and board members regularly spent taxpayer money on meals and alcohol for themselves at the restaurant.
"The Waterleaf has lost money year after year," COD board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton said. "Last year, it lost approximately a half-million dollars."
Hamilton said it's understood that some college classes or programs will lose money.
The problem with the Waterleaf, Hamilton says, is that it's being used to train students only two days a week. The rest of the time, it's run by a professional staff.
"It has no educational role," said Trustee Charles Bernstein, who has devoted time to examining the operation of the Waterleaf. "Even when faculty and administrators made it known that it would be a very useful addition to the academic program, it had no educational role."
So trustees on Thursday night reviewed three possible options for the Waterleaf: renting out the restaurant, increasing its use as a learning lab for students, or closing the restaurant and using it for classroom space.
The first option includes having a company lease or manage the space. However, a company the school approached with the idea wasn't interested.
If the college decides to shut the restaurant and convert part or all of it into classroom space, officials said it could create up to five new classrooms. But the classrooms would be smaller than desired. The building location also is inconvenient for a majority of the student population, officials said.
Officials presenting the various options on Thursday night sounded more enthusiastic about the idea of converting the Waterleaf into an academic lab.
"I believe if our academic programs and faculty had greater access to the space currently occupied by the Waterleaf restaurant, we could enhance the preparation of our students -- our culinary and our hospitality students -- in a number of ways," said Donna Stewart, COD's dean of business and technology.
Stewart said new courses could be developed and existing courses could be moved to the space. Also, there would be greater opportunities for students to experience "various styles of service and cuisines within real world scenarios."
A final decision about the Waterleaf's fate wasn't made. That's expected to happen at a later date.
This week, Hamilton said, "The general sense is we would like to turn it into an educational center for cooking and culinary arts."
Meanwhile, Hamilton and her political allies on the board -- Bernstein, Deanne Mazzochi and Frank Napolitano -- already have implemented reforms at COD that include suspending all house accounts for the Waterleaf and other expenses.
"We want people to think of College of DuPage a little bit differently," Hamilton said. "Yes, we've had problems. We have investigations going on. But we need to move ahead. We need to look at everything we're doing and make sure that it's actually going in the direction of education."