In what could become a tug-of-war for one of the area’s revered cultural spots, Oak Park may have the advantage after meeting with representatives of a Forest Park theater company to discuss leveraging public funds to relocate the group there.
During a meeting of the Oak Park village board Tuesday, Circle Theatre was tempted to relocate its stage to Harrison Street on the promise of more than $200,000 in grant funding. Those funds would help the non-profit performance group pay for renovations and operating costs. One of the purses, roughly $77,000, would be paid over three years.
Circle Theatre’s future has been difficult to predict for the performance troupe and village officials alike since the Madison Street property in which it rents space changed hands last summer.
Restaurateur and property developer Art Sundry bought the Hain Building at 7300 Madison St. for $1.5 million, taking on the theater, a video rental store and 22 residential apartments as tenants. The building is in sore need of renovations and Circle Theatre, Sundry’s primary tenant, has a lease agreement through October of 2010 that guarantees them a steep discount on the market rate for the location.
Village trustees in Oak Park are pushing to install Circle Theatre within its arts district by September and are expected to revisit the issue next month. No formal action has been taken, though trustees spoke in support of luring the theater from Forest Park.
Following the Jan. 22 meeting, Sundry confirmed he received a letter this month from the theater asking to terminate the lease agreement. He has not made a decision on the request, nor is he certain how the space might be used if Circle Theatre does vacate the building.
“I wasn’t planning to think about it until 2010, and last week I was asked to think about it in 2008,” Sundry said.
Regardless of who holds the lease agreement, Sundry said he planned to bring the rent in line with market rates once the current lease expires. Bob Knuth, a member of the theater’s board of directors, told Oak Park officials that relocating to Harrison Street would double their rent.
Circle Theatre has occupied the Hain Building for some 18 years and is regarded by many as being a critical piece of Forest Park’s economic rebirth along Madison Street. Mayor Anthony Calderone did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the theater’s potential move, but said in July that he was “interested in seeing Circle Theatre remain” in Forest Park.
Village Administrator Mike Sturino said he and other community leaders have impressed upon both Sundry and the theater that they would like to retain the business, but ultimately those decisions will be made in the private sector.
Though Circle Theatre is a “dynamic asset” to the community, Forest Park lacks the resources to offer grants or other incentives that might sway the organization’s directors to stay, said Sturino.
“If our neighbors to the east want to poach one of our cultural institutions, there’s not a lot we can do about it because [Circle Theatre is] a tenant in a private building,” Sturino said.
Two members of Circle Theatre’s board of directors did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.
Wednesday Journal reporter Marty Stempniak contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: For complete coverage, read the Jan. 30 Forest Park Review.