Candidates differ on script for Wheaton Grand Theater, downtown vision
After more than five years of construction, a $35 million revitalization project in downtown Wheaton is approaching the finish line.
The city has rebuilt streets, replaced underground infrastructure, reconfigured parking and created new public gathering spaces designed to set the downtown apart from other suburban business districts. While only a few final touches remain, the city plans to mark the completion of the megaproject at an April ceremony.
City council candidates running in next month's municipal elections offer different views on how to build on the momentum downtown. The council hopefuls also have different visions for one of the most perennially vacant buildings downtown: the Wheaton Grand Theater.
Three candidates -- incumbent Erica Bray-Parker and newcomers Frank Hudetz and Brad Clousing -- are competing for two open at-large council seats.
The city used tax increment financing dollars and issued bonds to help pay for the streetscape project. A downtown TIF district expired in December 2022.
Clousing, a commercial real estate broker, calls tax increment financing a "tool of last resort." He noted a seven-story apartment development is moving forward downtown without any TIF district assistance.
"That's a large successful development that didn't need any city dollars contributed to it and will greatly expand the tax base," Clousing said in a recent forum before the Daily Herald Editorial Board. "For me, it would be a wait-and-see on using extra city dollars or allocating any buckets of money out of the gate."
Hudetz, a former CEO of a marketing company, has said the city should take a more proactive approach to economic development. He's also suggested the city may need to incentivize housing for seniors and people with disabilities in downtown Wheaton.
"Naperville and other communities are seeing the need for affordable housing and being proactive about creating it," Hudetz said at a League of Women Voters forum. "I think Wheaton really needs to look seriously at this."
Hudetz also would support using city funds -- "to some degree" -- to help restore the Wheaton Grand Theater. The former movie palace opened in 1925. But it's been vacant since the early aughts, and efforts to preserve the theater haven't made much progress.
Hudetz, however, said a revived downtown theater would "harmonize so well with the restaurants" on Hale Street.
"What a gem of an opportunity, actually, because we know the restaurants would love theater, live theater, happening there or musicals or demos, concerts coming in," Hudetz said.
In 2011, 56% of residents voted against a proposal for the city to earmark $150,000 toward the theater annually.
"At this moment in time, what I know is the community doesn't really favor that," said Bray-Parker, a high school civics teacher who is seeking her second term. "It would be a lot of funds. That property needs major work."
If there were facade grants available to "freshen up" the exterior of the theater, Clousing said he would be "all in favor of that." But Bray-Parker and Clousing said they would generally lean against putting public money into a restoration of the theater, a privately owned property.
"I think it's a slippery slope when you start investing or allocating city dollars into private businesses," Clousing said. "And that row there through Hale is doing so well anyway, despite having kind of not much going on at the theater there. I would not be in favor of a city takeover or the city spending significant dollars at this point."
As for the rest of downtown, Bray-Parker said the streetscape project has been a "huge success in bringing in foot traffic." Officials encourage economic development through the Downtown Wheaton Association, Bray-Parker said, but the city doesn't have "a Naperville-size economic development office."
"We've got quite a lot of great things going on in the downtown area, especially with some of the new apartment buildings that are coming in," she said at the League of Women Voters event. "But when we had to discuss those items, we heard a lot from constituents about the city being more involved and more proactive and more aggressive in economic development. And if that's a conversation we should have as a city, then I'm open to having that conversation."
The Wheaton City Council is composed of six members. Four council members represent the city's four voting districts, while two members are elected at large. The election is on April 4.