Schaumburg entertains taking on Chicago theater market

 
 
Updated 5/15/2017 3:22 PM
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  • Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson talks enthusiastically about the proposed plans for a 2,800-seat performing arts center on the west side of the village's Renaissance Hotel to anchor a future entertainment district and compete in the Chicago theater market.

      Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson talks enthusiastically about the proposed plans for a 2,800-seat performing arts center on the west side of the village's Renaissance Hotel to anchor a future entertainment district and compete in the Chicago theater market. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • A 2,800-seat performing arts center would be built on the west side of Schaumburg's Renaissance Hotel. The Schaumburg Convention Center lies on the east side of the hotel.

      A 2,800-seat performing arts center would be built on the west side of Schaumburg's Renaissance Hotel. The Schaumburg Convention Center lies on the east side of the hotel. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Schaumburg Director of Cultural Services Betsy Armistead talks about the proposed plans for a 2,800-seat performing arts center on the campus of the Schaumburg Convention Center and Renaissance Hotel.

      Schaumburg Director of Cultural Services Betsy Armistead talks about the proposed plans for a 2,800-seat performing arts center on the campus of the Schaumburg Convention Center and Renaissance Hotel. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens says the 4,200-seat Rosemont Theatre hasn't been able to compete for big Broadway productions since the foundation of the Broadway in Chicago group of city theaters in 2000.

    Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens says the 4,200-seat Rosemont Theatre hasn't been able to compete for big Broadway productions since the foundation of the Broadway in Chicago group of city theaters in 2000. Daily Herald file photo, 2011

  • Tim Rater, executive director of Aurora's Paramount Theatre, said Schaumburg would find it extremely challenging -- though not impossible -- to compete directly with Chicago theaters with a 2,800-seat performing arts center of its own.

    Tim Rater, executive director of Aurora's Paramount Theatre, said Schaumburg would find it extremely challenging -- though not impossible -- to compete directly with Chicago theaters with a 2,800-seat performing arts center of its own. Daily Herald file photo, 2008

Is Schaumburg capable of competing with the Chicago theater market?

Village leaders this week will discuss building a $70 million, 2,800-seat performing arts center on their convention center campus to anchor a planned entertainment district.

Such a venture, they say, would provide a valuable cultural opportunity for suburbanites to see a Broadway-caliber show closer to home.

"There are people who don't go to the city. They just won't go," said Trustee Tom Dailly, one of the bigger proponents of the idea among village board members. "The theater will draw people locally as well as people staying in Schaumburg."

But others familiar with the industry say it's easier to break ground for a building than to truly break into this particular brand of show business.

Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens says if the village and its 4,200-seat Rosemont Theatre could lure such big-name shows as "Hamilton" and "Aladdin" away from the Broadway in Chicago group of theaters, they'd be happy to do so.

Everything is in place at the Rosemont Theatre, but Stephens says he's seen no desire on the part of such productions to choose a suburban venue over a city one.

"The big guys own those theaters," he said. "They own and control the shows."

Rosemont was muscled out of the city's theater market when Broadway in Chicago came to town in 2000. Since then, Rosemont Theatre has hosted a variety of concerts, comedians and corporate events. But the original intention of the building was very similar to what Schaumburg is contemplating, Stephens said.

He concedes that 4,200 seats is larger than market demand these days, and said he's heard actors don't like to look out at too many empty seats. But he also suggests Schaumburg's target of 2,800 seats may also be too high.

Meanwhile, he added, Rosemont is mulling replacing the Rosemont Theatre with a facility of perhaps 1,800 to 2,200 seats.

Tough market

Theaters of all sizes operate in the suburbs, but the shows at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora are probably the most comparable to Schaumburg's aim.

The Paramount's Broadway Series is wrapping up this season with "Jesus Christ Superstar." Shows scheduled for the fall season include "Million Dollar Quartet," "Elf" and "Cabaret."

Tim Rater, executive director of the Paramount, agreed with Stephens' assessment of the toughness of competing with Broadway in Chicago -- a subsidiary of the New York-based Nederlander Organization.

But he disagreed that 2,800 seats is necessarily the wrong size for Schaumburg; he's impressed by the village's track record of success.

"It all depends on how you operate the space," Rater said. "There's always a way to be successful if they're creative."

Regardless of size, the theater industry is a particular challenge.

"It really is a trudge to get big acts," he said. "If they're looking at doing theater, they're going to find themselves in a similar situation to Rosemont."

Rater said it's true that Chicago theaters don't gobble up every available production simultaneously. But he cautioned Schaumburg officials against comparing their potential to the suburban venues they've been looking at outside Atlanta, Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

"I would worry about using that as a basis of comparison," Rater said. "Chicago is an entirely different beast. ... A theater in the middle of nowhere could do better."

The Paramount, Rater said, is assisted by its distance from Chicago, more than 40 miles. Schaumburg, though, "will be considered part of the Chicago market."

A November feasibility study suggested Schaumburg could find a niche in the market with a $105 million facility -- as long as an operator of similar clout to the Nederlander Organization was brought on board to run it.

As the price tag was too high for every trustee, Village Manager Brian Townsend said he's spent the past six months researching a way to bring down the cost to $70 million and reaching out to some potential operators.

He'll present the cost estimates to a village board committee at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 16.

Some operators have expressed a willingness to engage with the village at the appropriate time, he said.

"We obviously need to get over the hurdle of the village board deciding whether to move forward with the project," Townsend added.

With the idea technically on hold since the Schaumburg Convention Center and Renaissance Hotel was built along I-90 at Meacham Road more than a decade ago, the village will have saved $24 million for the performing arts center by the end of this year, he added. The center would be built on the west side of the hotel.

But even if trustees decide now is the time to do it, an 18-month construction period probably would begin no earlier than 2019, Townsend said.

Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson continues to be one of the strongest supporters of the project and believes the time to do it has arrived. He said the convention center and hotel are examples of the benefits of having and fulfilling a vision for improvement.

Larson said both are meeting goals of attracting more visitors and businesses to the area. And though their early success was dampened somewhat during the years of the recession, strong management helped weather that economic downturn reasonably well.

"It's always easier to say no than to say yes," Larson said. "You say yes and you have a responsibility to develop the future. If you say no, who cares?"

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