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Fresh hope to turn Uptown into Chicago’s music mecca

It was just a question, not a promise, but it certainly got the city’s music community and the Uptown neighborhood chattering.

In an interview that aired Wednesday on WXRT-FM (93.1), mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel talked about his favorite bands — and dropped an idea for creating a music district in Uptown.

“You have the Riv [Riviera Theatre], you have the Aragon. ... We have a downtown theater district. Should there be an Uptown music district, given our history with labels as well as the club scene, which is truly, truly unique around the country?” Emanuel asked.

It’s not the first time the question has been asked — a 2000 study by the Washington-based Urban Land Institute said it too — but the fact that the incoming mayor is raising it has sparked hope that now might be the time it finally happens.

“It’s very exciting that he’s thinking about this early on,” said Harry Osterman, the incoming alderman for the 48th Ward, where many of the venues for the district sit. “Culture and music and the arts are very important to our city, and the Uptown area has a long history of that.”

How many neighborhoods can boast of hosting the likes of Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Sophie Tucker — “the Last of the Red Hot Mammas” — dazzling the starstruck crowds that flocked to Uptown through the years? Or Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead in more recent times.

The city’s music business could certainly support its own district. According to a 2005 economic-impact study commissioned by the Chicago Music Commission, the city’s music concert, recording and sales business generates $1 billion annually. The city’s music businesses also employ 53,000 people, the study says; only New York and Los Angeles employee more. The year of the study, Chicago ranked fourth in the country for the number of concerts it hosted.

Members of the commission are set to meet with Emanuel this week to discuss several issues relating to local music, including this idea for a music district.

Emanuel’s spokesman, Ben LaBolt said, it’s just one of many ideas the arts and culture committee of the mayor-elect’s transition team will explore.

“There are many longstanding institutions in the neighborhood that could serve as anchors for a music district — from the Green Mill, to the Aragon, to the Riviera, to the Uptown,” LaBolt said.

“As the mayor-elect saw with the Old Town School of Folk Music in his congressional district, strong arts and cultural institutions help to anchor communities and build the environment for local economic development. Private financing would of course be welcomed.”

Back in 2000, the Urban Land Institute — a nonprofit land use research and consulting group — said an “entertainment district” was key to kick-starting economic development in Uptown.

Keep supporting the Aragon Ballroom and the Green Mill, the report said, and restore the “crown jewel” Uptown Theatre: “Its restoration will be expensive and difficult, but the theater is a major historic and aesthetic treasure that must be retained.”

Long before that study, concert promoter Jerry Mickelson — the Uptown Theatre’s current owner — tried to market the Uptown intersection of Broadway and Lawrence as a music destination.

“This is an idea we started back in 1975,” Mickelson, co-founder of Jam Productions, one of the city’s biggest concert promoters, said Thursday. “We called it Poptown back then. People knew where the Aragon was, but they weren’t sure where the Riv and the Uptown were. So our ads showed Poptown in relation to the Kennedy, the Edens, Lake Shore — trying to point people to this destination, this one-spot concept of it being a music corner.”

In 2008, Jam paid $3.2 million for the Uptown Theatre, 4816 N. Broadway, which has been closed and vacant since 1981. Jam has since merely maintained the building while seeking funding for the extensive renovations to bring it back to working order. Mickelson says that’s “a $70 million job, at least.”

Emanuel has compared the idea of a music district to the city’s downtown theater district, which came together in the early 1990s when Mayor Daley targeted the area with tax increment financing dollars to lure theater projects to the Loop. In 2010, Daley said the city had invested $86 million in TIF funds in the district that have yielded $233 million in private investment. The four downtown theaters operated by Broadway in Chicago draw 1.7 million people each year, 42 percent of those audiences coming from at least 100 miles away.

The Broadway-Lawrence intersection in Uptown is included within another TIF district, but Mickelson says he’s not yet applied for funds to assist in the Uptown Theatre restoration.

Just how much money Mickelson would get remains to be seen. At times, he’s had a combative relationship with current 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith, who has described some of his proposals for the Uptown Theatre as “half-baked.”

Still, Smith seems to believe that Mickelson may have finally assembled the team to save the crumbling theater.

“He’s brought in some folks from Oakland [Calif.] who know how to do this, and have done this, and have a track record,” Smith said last week. “I’m extremely optimistic.”

Smith’s successor, Osterman, who will be sworn in May 16, said he isn’t opposed to using TIF money, but said he’d like to first see a price tag for the project.

Of his team, Mickelson says it’s “someone who knows how to put funding together for old, historic buildings, ... which would tie in to creating an entertainment district in that area.”

Of course, if such districts were easy to accomplish and finance, the city would have more of them.

For years, there’s been talk of creating a so-called “Motor Row” entertainment district at 22nd and Michigan to pay homage to the blues and record companies once located there.

The Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville — built with nearly $9 million in taxpayer funds — was supposed to anchor a blues district along 47th Street. Facing foreclosure, the troubled center has since been taken over by the City Colleges of Chicago.

“It sounds great to be encouraging music and the performing arts,” said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall. “But the city lacks the resources and borrowing potential to make independent decisions that may impact its overall financial situation with at least a $500 million operating deficit and over $700 million in annual pension contribution shortfalls.”

Despite the hurdles, Emanuel’s “intriguing” idea is worth pursuing, said Lee Bey, a former Daley planner now serving as executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee.

“Clearly, he sees and understands that there is potential for a critical mass of entertainment venues there and that, with the right programming and the right stuff that goes along with it, there is a strong potential that it could be what it was in the ’20s and ’30s — a major entertainment destination,” Bey said. “In Uptown, you’re not starting from scratch or even sub-scratch. The Riviera is a historic venue. The Aragon is still used. You’ve got two embers still burning. It’s a question of what sparks can you add to make it something.”

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