Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center, home to the fantastic Elgin Symphony Orchestra, is less than a mile away, in the heart of downtown.
Both attract steady audiences to Elgin, though the casino’s numbers are down significantly in the past couple of years.
In theory, both venues should drive crowds to the growing restaurant and bar population that’s trying to take hold in downtown. But in reality, that doesn’t really happen, particularly with casino patrons who have their pick of dining options within the casino’s confines.
Last week, the City Council decided to pursue a study that will evaluate the feasibility of an entertainment venue that could serve both purposes: hosting the ESO and growing arts community while also serving the Grand Victoria’s need to compete with the new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. (Thankfully, we’re not paying for this $45,000 with tax dollars. The Grand Victoria’s parent company, HGMI Gaming, will foot the bill.) While a location hasn’t really been determined, some have floated Festival Park, given its location between the casino and downtown, as a logical space.
Mike Danahey’s wonderfully comprehensive Courier News piece covers the biggest issues: Festival Park is the only green space in downtown; the need to be good neighbors to the townhome residents who have struggled with noisy downtown venues (namely the Main Event), and the odd pairing of gambling and arts. This is the part that really piqued my interest.
Elgin talks a lot about becoming a destination for the arts. The ESO has been an institution since 1950, and we have plenty of smaller groups like Elgin Opera, Janus Theatre, Elgin Theatre Company, Elgin Art Showcase, and others I’m surely forgetting. ArtSpace is becoming a (taxpayer-funded) reality that will bring 55 artists to downtown. SpaceTaste Gallery has periodic shows and really unique things to see.
In that sense, the Hemmens has outlived its useful purpose. Built in 1969, it has only 1200 seats, strangely configured. The acoustics aren’t worthy of the ESO – I was blown away when I went to a recent ESO concert at the Prairie Center in Schaumburg. A new facility is overdue, and would offer more flexibility to serve the growing variety of arts needs.
But I still struggle with how one venue can successfully meet the needs of such disparate groups. As Danahey points out, facilities hosting symphony concerts are inherently structurally different than those hosting casino shows that feature rock and pop acts. A single facility might serve the traditional arts (symphony, opera, stage productions), but would not have the bones needed for a more contemporary act, and vice versa.
Facilities aside, lets consider their respective audiences. Do gamblers like opera? Do we care if they do? I don’t see a lot of mingling of audiences. Would most casino goers consider attending an ESO performance?
I think we need to be realistic that such a venue would have to serve two distinct audiences. While that’s not impossible, it takes very careful planning. Understand who your audiences are. Research their respective needs. Admit that there won’t be much overlap. Work with local complementary businesses to cross-promote where it makes sense. While casino patrons may not attend gallery openings, ESO-goers may be interested. I haven’t see that kind of connection to date, and it’s a relatively easy win.
I do think that a facility bridging the tundra between the casino and downtown may help downtown businesses. I love the openness of Festival Park (see my header picture at the top of this blog), but standing at the casino, looking towards downtown, the empty expanse seems endless. And if you do venture north into downtown, the first block of Grove is a ghost town, with far too many vacant storefronts. The new Prairie Rock Grill will anchor this corner, and hopefully bring in traffic that will help encourage other businesses.
What’s your take?