Cultural center under scrutiny

More than 10 years after groundbreaking, the Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC), 4701 S. King Dr., opened to great fanfare in 2004. Those attending the ceremony included Mayor Richard M. Daley, 3rd Ward Ald. Dorothy Tillman and prominent developer and political fund-raiser Elzie Higginbottom.

Tillman heralded the HWCC’s opening as the beginning of Bronzeville’s economic renaissance. But today much of neighborhood remains peppered by vacant lots — new businesses to the area have been few. And the HWCC is running a budget deficit amid allegations by Tillman’s political opponents of cronyism, nepotism and financial deals that directly benefit Tillman’s relatives and friends.

In a three-part series, the Lakefront Outlook will explore the factors that led to the conception, funding, construction and operation of the HWCC. This series will explore the factors, influences and potential consequences to the public of the plans and apparent realities for what was supposed to be the cornerstone of historic Bronzeville’s economic and cultural rebirth.

Click to enlarge Cultural center lost twice as much as it grossed its first year
by Erin Meyer and Kalari Girtley

At its inception, both 3rd Ward Ald. Dorothy Tillman and local legend Lou Rawls took credit for what later became the Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC), which sits today at an economic and organizational crossroads.

The most recent financial reports filed with state and federal officials by the non-profit organization Tobacco Road Inc., which manages the center, show it lost nearly twice as much money as it grossed in its first full year of operations. In recent months, the HWCC’s events calendar shows the state-of-the-art, 1,000-seat theater has been dark. Top-tier entertainment at the venue is rare, according to the center’s Web site. And events that help burnish Tillman’s legacy are routinely scheduled.

Private donations for the center, which totaled $2 million during the construction and fund-raising portions of the project, have all but dried up. A small but steady stream of public money continues to augment the HWCC’s operating budget, but the uncertain political future of the 3rd Ward could further jeopardize the center’s operational stability.

An examination of the HWCC’s organizational, operational and financial reports further suggests:

• The financial outlook for the HWCC is shaky. In 2004, a cash crunch forced Tobacco Road to refinance one of its three mortgages to raise an additional $881,958 for operating and construction costs.

• There are instances of apparent conflicts of interest involving current and former board members and management from the non-profit organization that oversees the HWCC.

• Appearances of possible self dealing conduct by key management at the HWCC, which the Internal Revenue Service defines as financial transactions between a non-profit and virtually all persons closely related to the organization.

Dorothy’s dream

Surrounded by friends, family and political supporters, Tillman beamed as she spoke above the strains from a brass band at the Aug. 17, 2004 opening of the HWCC. It was Tillman who lobbied for and won an unprecedented stream of city, state and federal money that paid for 90 percent of the building’s cost.

“This is something that will live on for our children,” Tillman said at the opening.

But whose children are benefiting from the $19.5 million concrete and glass building?

Since its inception in 1993, Tillman has staffed the board of Tobacco Road Inc. with her family, friends and political allies.

Consider the following:

• Jimalita Tillman, one of three daughters of Dorothy Tillman, is Tobacco Road’s executive director. State and IRS records obtained by the Lakefront Outlook show Jimalita Tillman is paid $45,000 annually for 30 hours of weekly work for the organization.

• Current and former members of the Tobacco Road board — the body that is supposed to oversee Jimalita Tillman’s work — include her brother Bemaji Tillman; Otis Clay, a Chicago musician and long time friend of Dorothy Tillman; Robin Brown, Dorothy Tillman’s former chief of staff; Brenda Ramsey, a campaign contributor to Tillman’s 3rd Ward Democratic Organization; and Terrence Bell, a financial contributor to Tillman’s campaigns.

Ald. Tillman did not respond to repeated requests by the Lakefront Outlook to discuss Tobacco Road’s board and management composition. Jimalita Tillman did not respond to requests for an interview or to written questions about the HWCC and Tobacco Road delivered to the cultural center.

Tim Walter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Small Foundations, said empanelling a non-profit entity’s oversight board with persons who share family ties and have friend-based loyalties can be problematic to the effective leadership and management of a non-profit entity.

“You want to avoid situations where a non-profit’s actions could trigger even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Walter said. “I think that’s one of the keys in running a small and successful non-profit.”

Potential for inner-city success

The cultural center is named after Chicago’s first black mayor, who died in 1987. Few would dispute its potential to return Chicago’s storied Black Belt to its glory days as an entertainment and cultural Mecca. The 40,000-square-foot, $19.5 million building boasts a digital media resource center — staffed by Illinois Institute of Technology faculty — and a joint radio and broadcast center.

University of Chicago professor Diane Grams, from the Harris School of Public Policy, has taken a close look at Bronzeville in her upcoming book “Producing Local Color.” Grams said she found no other local institution as promising a cultural and economic engine as HWCC.

“As a state-of-the-art facility, it seems to have the potential to substantially increase its earned income through more extensive programming, specifically theatrical and musical performances in the 1,000-seat theater,” Grams said. “Can you imagine 1,000 people coming to the corner three to four times a week? It is possible.”

But residents and tourists are not flocking to the HWCC. Its scheduling calendar is thin; in November, the theater was used for only 10 performances of the play “Choices.” The only publicized event in December for the HWCC’s theater is a Dec. 31 tribute to Motown.

Tobacco Road’s financial reports obtained by the Lakefront Outlook via the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show that the organization is struggling financially. Between Aug. 17, 2004 and June 30, 2005 — the organization’s first year of operation — the HWCC fell into the red. The organization’s federal tax returns for that year show revenues of $678,688, including government grants of $25,000. The organization’s expenses totaled $1,269,514.

Look at New Jersey

Grams said a comparable example of a similar facility maximizing its potential to the community is the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts (NJCPA), in Newark, N.J., which turned a $1.1 million profit during its first year in operation in 1999. “They were programming and earning $10 million in ticket sales in the first year they opened and have maintained that level since then,” Grams said. “This was done in part through building networks of advisory committees in both corporate and religious sectors of Newark.”

Like the HWCC, the NJCPA was also built almost entirely with public funds, and like the HWCC, it is also run as a non-profit organization. Both organizations are overseen by a board of directors. And the concept of using public money to fund both of these privately run non-profit groups is also similar.

Mayor Richard M. Daley said at the HWCC’s 2004 opening that the facility would “showcase what Chicago’s all about” and that residents from “all walks of life will now be able to understand how important education is in arts and culture — not only to the African-American community but to our city, our nation and the world.”

Like Bronzeville, Newark’s population is predominately African-American. The city has been burdened, like Bronzeville, by urban decay and disinvestment. And, as is the hope in the heart of Bronzeville, revitalization characterizes Newark’s more recent history.

One of the goals in building the NJCPA was to help repair the city’s social fabric, ravaged by some of the worst 1960s race riots, said Lawrence Goldman, the NJCPA president. Creating a diverse programming schedule that appealed not only to Newark residents but also to the metropolitan area’s diverse population has been key in the center’s success.

“NJCPA’s commitment to bringing diverse communities together is in our DNA,” said Goldman. “There is scarcely a major decision that impacts the arts center that is not looked at without understanding its effect on our diversity mission.”

The Newark center’s December programming calendar reflects this commitment to diversity. NJCPA has scheduled events for 26 of December’s 31 days — its artists performing gospel, soul, baroque, hip-hop, doo wop, classical music and a touring production of the Broadway play “The Producers.”

Some of the HWCC events, Tillman’s political opponents allege, were staged to help boost the alderman’s popularity. The alderman, who was appointed by Mayor Washington in 1983, is up for re-election in February 2007.

Recent examples of events at the HWCC where Ald. Tillman played a role include:

• The Chicago Black United Fund’s Sept. 20 gala, where Ald. Tillman and her daughters Jimalita, Ebony and Gimel were honored as the group’s new “living legends.”

• In August, the HWCC hosted the 40th anniversary celebration of the Chicago Freedom Movement, where Ald. Tillman was a featured speaker.

Some of the events held since the opening of the HWCC may also have violated federal non-profit tax law, said senior partner at Chicago-based Quarles & Brady LLP Janice Rodgers, a nationally-known charitable organization attorney.

In order for an organization to maintain a non-profit tax status, the IRS prohibits persons affiliated with a non-profit group — and their relatives — from conducting financial or in-kind transactions that profit a non-profit group’s senior management or members of its board of directors.

In addition to her duties at the HWCC, Jimalita Tillman also owns and operates the Spoken Word CafÈ, located directly north of the HWCC. Promotional material for the HWCC obtained by the Lakefront Outlook indicated that Spoken Word provides catering for HWCC events. That is potentially a violation of federal tax law, said Rodgers.

“That is something that could trigger some scrutiny by the IRS,” Rodgers said.

Ald. Tillman declined to respond to messages left at her office seeking comment on her involvement in these and other events hosted at the HWCC. Jimalita Tillman did not respond to several verbal and written requests to comment on her dual roles at Spoken Word and HWCC.

When HWCC opened in 2004, Jimalita Tillman said the facility was meant to be “an education center first, an entertainment center second.”

Jimalita Tillman did not respond to written requests seeking documentation about the youth educational programming at the facility. However, she said in 2004 that the HWCC would host an economics to music program to allow students to record and produce their own music and also learn about copyright laws and publishing.

In contrast, the NJCPA provided the lists of dozens of ongoing educational programs at the facility. More than 200,000 children have visited the center since its opening. The programs offered to area youth include jazz for teens, youth orchestra festivals and workshops, summer music programs and two different performing arts scholarship programs.

Daniel J. Yovich contributed to this report.

  Tillman, Lou Rawls had a falling out
by Nykeya Woods

The charity and good works of one of Bronzeville’s most successful sons knew no bounds.

Lou Rawls died in January after a lifetime of singing success and philanthropy. What is now the Harold Washington Cultural Center was originally planned to be the Lou Rawls Cultural Center.

The late entertainer raised and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project before a falling out with 3rd Ward Ald. Dorothy Tillman led to his withdrawal from the project amid a series of construction delays.

David Brokaw, Rawls’ long-time friend and publicist, said the project became one of the singer’s biggest disappointments.

“It became an embarrassment for him with his friends around the country who’d ask when his cultural center would be completed, when was it going to open,” Brokaw said. “He could never get a straight answer from Alderman Tillman. He’d ask ‘why is this taking so long, why haven’t we broken ground?’ and she would never answer his questions. He finally realized this wasn’t worth his time and effort.”

Tillman has not responded to repeated requests from the Lakefront Outlook seeking comment about her involvement in the HWCC.

In 1990, Rawls was the headliner at Tillman’s first annual Bring It On Home to Me Roots Festival, staged in several city-owned vacant lots adjacent to the HWCC. Rawls later served as president of Tobacco Road Inc., the non-profit organization that was founded to operate what later became the HWCC.

“When Lou would come home to Chicago for the Roots Festival, it was like the Pope coming to town,” Brokaw said. “Time stood still. You could probably check with the police from that time and you’d see a dramatic drop in crime in the Bronzeville neighborhood. It was that big a deal.”

Rawls’ recording career spanned gospel, pop, jazz, blues and soul. He recorded more than 60 albums, earned three Grammy awards, received 13 Grammy nominations, and scored a platinum album, five gold albums and a gold single. The non-profit group Tobacco Road took its name from the title of a 1960s Rawls hit, and he went on to raise more than $200 million for the United Negro College Fund and gave away millions more to other charitable organizations, Brokaw said.

“But the whole thing in Bronzeville was just one let-down after another,” Brokaw said. “And when the name was changed from the Lou Rawls to the Harold Washington Cultural Center, the alderman never even told him of the change. He learned about it from the newspapers.”