Committee members find Culver’s assistance request hard to swallow

A move to bring Culver’s trademark Butterburgers and frozen custards to a shopping center lot in southwest Evanston could take a sizeable bite out of the city’s fund assistance budget, based on a request which went before a city committee Wednesday.

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee considered a request from two Culver’s franchise owners for $800,000 in city assistance to cover a gap in the development.

Owners Kevin Weasler and Guy Hollis are seeking to build the restaurant on an out-lot opposite the Target at Howard Street and Hartrey Avenue, which has sat vacant for 20 years.

Culver’s, which emphasizes a “Family First” theme, began in 1984 when Craig and Lea Culver opened the first Culver’s in their hometown of Sauk City, Wis. There are now more than Culver’s restaurants nationwide.

After scouting out a site in the Evanston area, Weasler and Hollis set their sights on the shopping center lot.

After a multi-year effort to acquire the property (Target and Best Buy, the joint owners, weren’t even aware its status) the two now have an option on the development, Hollis said.

They were approaching the committee now about the prospects of assistance because “I don’t want to spend a lot of money on the project if I don’t know its destiny,’’ Hollis straightforwardly told the committee Wednesday.

Weaslernd Hollis’s request for $800,000 in assistance would go toward remediating some of the soil on the lot as well as some site and land acquisition costs.

Based on the cost of similar Culver’s stores, the Evanston development would run about $2.8 million, Hollis said.

Hollis said Howard Street is less traveled compared to some of the Culver’s stores in other locations. A store in Evergreen Park, for instance, has more than twice the traffic than the Howard site (an estimated 20,000 cars per day).

Consequently, Weasler and Hollis are projecting sales tax revenues as slightly lower.

“If we had $3 million in sales we probably wouldn’t be asking this group for anything,” Hollis told EDC members.

Reacting, EDC member Raymond Zenkich said he understood the request for economic development funds to address any soil issues. “I get that.”

But Zenkich said he was concerned about linking any city assistance to the proposal because of the owner’s assertion that due to demographics, and lighter volume, they might generate lower sales figures.

“I like soft ice cream as much as anyone else,” Alderman Melissa Wynne said. However, “I’m very surprised by the number. I think it’s a very high number.’’

With the city projecting the store would generate about $36,000 in annual sales tax to the city, the $800,000 “is a very high number for us to fill that gap to get a relatively small amount of sales tax return,’’ she observed.

Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose Eighth Ward the site is located, said the project is doable if officials can find a way to “whittle down a little” the $800,000 figure.

With the lot not generating any appreciable sales tax or property tax revenue until now, Rainey said she would have no problem backing some form of sales tax or property tax rebate to assist the owners.

She said tapping Tax Increment Finance Funds (The TIF district is set to expire next year) and economic development assistance are other possibilities.

She noted the committee’s support for an Autobarn proposal, in which it OK’d a large sales tax rebate so the car dealership could build a warehouse and storage facility on a site behind the Target.

Culver’s proposal could be more “significant,” she maintained. The Culver’s owners are proposing to hire people for 25 full-time positions compared to the 20 new jobs Autobarn projects to generate.

“That’s a lot of salaries, and that generates a lot of income,” she said.

EDC members directed that staff bring the issue back to them with more details at the group’s next meeting, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 27, at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 N. Ridge Ave.

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