No Longer a Parking Garage, Not Yet a Museum

“This has been the most agonizing chapter of my entire life,” says Museum of Broadcast Communications founder and president Bruce DuMont. The museum is currently operating out of a temporary office with a view of the stalled construction site where its new permanent home was supposed to open this year. A former parking garage at the corner of State and Kinzie, the building has already gone through the first leg of a $21 million makeover that would transform it into a glassy, four-story tourist attraction. The contractor, Pepper Construction, completed a new roof for the 70,000-square-foot structure but then halted work just over a month ago, saying it couldn’t do anything else until it’s paid the $3 million owed on the job so far. That’s just the amount DuMont is waiting to receive from the state. “I’m twisting in the wind,” he says. “I feel like a piñata.”

The odd thing is, if anyone is equipped to navigate the local political and bureaucratic terrain, it’s DuMont. He’s worked in public affairs broadcasting here since the 1960s, producing talk shows for the likes of Jim Conway, Howard Miller, Lee Phillip, and John Callaway. His own local show, Inside Politics, which started on WBEZ in 1980, morphed into a nationally syndicated weekly radio program, Beyond the Beltway, broadcast locally on WLS AM. (A TV version of the show airs on WYCC and Comcast Channel 3.) Until withdrawing last fall, he also hosted a long-running statewide public television series, Illinois Lawmakers, which covered the same folks ultimately responsible for MBC’s gifts from the state.

The new facility–which will feature working television and radio studios, a digital archive of broadcast content, a “media cafe” where those archives can be accessed, and a ballroom that’ll seat 400 for dinner–will be a huge leap for MBC, which DuMont started in a space in River City in 1987 and moved into the Cultural Center in ’92. In 2002 it was the city’s 14th-most-popular tourist attraction, logging 225,000 visitors, but DuMont says the Cultural Center wasn’t interested in renewing its long-term lease. At the same time MBC received an incentive to decamp: a letter from the state announcing the $36 million Illinois Public Museums Capital Grants Program. A month later MBC held a board meeting on a bus, contractor and architect in tow, to survey possible locations–the parking garage was the last stop. The building was purchased for $4.6 million, $3.9 million of which was provided by the state. (About half of that was approved by Governor Ryan in the last days of his administration; the rest was promised by then senate president Pate Phillip, but the Blagojevich administration held it up until December of the following year in a general freeze. The sale closed in March 2003 with the help of a bridge loan from LaSalle Bank.)

The total budget for the project, including land, construction, exhibits, and the first year of operation, has hit $31 million, and DuMont says the construction delay will add to the cost. What he’s waiting on now is a second promised infusion of government cash. Besides the $3.9 million that enabled the purchase, he says the governor told him a year ago that the state would chip in $8 million more, a promise that was reiterated by Chris Meister of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and which gave his board the confidence to begin construction last July. (Andrew Ross, spokesperson for DCEO, says this claim is “absolutely not true.”) But the money never materialized, and in January he says he got word that the bounty had shrunk to $6 million, half of which would come in the form of a loan. Then in late April, just days before Pepper’s shutdown deadline of May 1, DuMont got written notice from the state of conditions he says were new to him but had to be met. According to DuMont, the state had noticed a $3.8 million gap between the museum’s funding and its projected expenses and wanted to know exactly who would be covering the shortfall. “They never said before that you have to have every penny in place before they’d release any money,” he says.

DuMont says it was impossible to pin that down fast enough to prevent the shutdown, but he thinks he’s got it covered now (though he declined to say where the money would come from). The opening for the building, once slated for 2005, is now targeted for next year. “If we can get this genie back in the bottle, we hope to have it up in March,” he says. “[But] the state has got to deliver on what they promised. If they don’t, we have more significant problems than just restarting construction. We’ll have to think about what our ongoing role will be if this project is stopped.”

Becky Carroll, a spokesperson for the governor’s office of management and budget, says “there are still a number of terms that need to be met–the same terms that any development of this nature would have to abide by. We’re huge supporters of this project, but we’re talking about $6 million in taxpayer funds. We need to ensure that we’re conducting all our due diligence.”

Apple Tree Uprooted

Can Apple Tree Theatre survive a double transplant? The 23-year-old institution, which also runs classes and a children’s theater program on an annual budget of about $1 million, says The Winning Streak, which opens June 21 and runs through July 16, will be its last production in the space above a Highland Park strip mall that’s been its home for the last 18 years. That’s no surprise: Apple Tree’s lease expires at the end of July, and founder Eileen Boevers has long been talking about a move. But as recently as last weekend, no one with the theater could say where it was going. Official word has the board considering an interim space for next season, with the city committed to keeping the theater in Highland Park for the long run. Board president Bob Wieseneck says the board is “working with the city on what the future holds for us. We’re not planning to close.”

The Keillor-Altman Connection

Local guy Tony Judge first met Garrison Keillor when both were starting out in radio. Judge, now a “consultant and water carrier” for Prairie Home Productions, and a producer on the Prairie Home Companion movie, says he was the link between Keillor and Robert Altman, hooking them up through a friend of a friend who happened to be Altman’s attorney. He also helped raise the film’s “tiny” $7 million budget, mostly from Minnesotans driven by civic pride. Judge was jittery as an icehouse in a thaw about this week’s opening in 700 theaters. Not to worry: the DVD should go like powder-milk biscuits with Keillor’s fans.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.