LINCOLN SQUARE — Students at the Old Town School of Folk Music, reeling from the school’s decision to sell and close its Lincoln Park building, say the move is shortsighted and should be stopped.
On Monday, the school’s leadership said it would sell its 909 W. Armitage Ave. building in order to create an endowment fund to secure the school’s financial future. The school, now based in Lincoln Square, owns the Lincoln Park building and it’s one of Old Town’s more valuable assets.
However, students like Rich Gordon are skeptical the fund will address what he says are the school’s revenue issues.
“This is just the latest in a long series of actions by the leadership of the school that suggest they really don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
Gordon started a petition on Tuesday around 2:30 p.m. asking for a change in leadership at the school and for the 909 W. Armitage Ave. location to be kept open. As of Wednesday afternoon it had 1,465 signatures.
“In 2009, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, the School’s board of directors committed millions of dollars to put up a second building in Lincoln Square, thinking that expansion there would increase student enrollment,” the petition says. “Lo and behold, enrollment did not increase. Instead, this foolish decision saddled the School with enormous debt and with increased operating costs — which led the leadership to increase the price of classes dramatically, which further reduced enrollment, creating the death spiral the school now confronts.”
The school’s first home in 1957 was at 333 North Avenue. It moved to Armitage in 1968 and then opened the Lincoln Avenue location in 1998.
In 2012, the school opened an additional building at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave., across the street from school’s main Lincoln Square building at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. The $16 million project added a 27,000-square-foot, three-story facility with a 150-capacity concert hall.
“We were all told at the time that they needed the building because they were out of space in the original Lincoln Square building. So they needed it for student enrollment,” Gordon said. “But it’s become very clear there was no increase in enrollment when they added the new building.”
The school’s spokesman , Dave Zibell, said the petition’s focus on enrollment following the 2012 opening of the building at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. is misguided.
“Some programs flourished or didn’t even exist when we opened the Lincoln Square East campus. For instance, dance classes for adults and kids have seen plenty of growth due to new state-of-the-art dance studios and we launched new programs like adult group piano classes in our piano lab,” Zibell said.
“However, decreases in enrollment are a reality for us. Enrollment declines are more pronounced at our Armitage location and are likely tied to changes in audience interest and demographic shifts in the neighborhoods we serve.”
He said this year’s enrollment is down about 4 percent from last year.
“As response to the claim about debt, Old Town School currently has zero debt. As competition increases in our marketplace and class enrollments decline we are re-examining all aspects of our operations to ensure a balanced budget and a strong roadmap for the future,” Zibell said.
On Tuesday, Executive Director Bau Graves told Block Club the revenue from the potential sale of the Lincoln Park building would be part of the seed money for the “Armitage Fund.” By combining the potential revenue from the sale with additional donor money, the school could set aside $10 million over the next few years for the fund which would help secure financial independence for its future.
“Once that money is set into an endowment that is forever, unless the board decides to change the charter,” Graves said. “With a $10 million endowment we can secure between $400,000 and 500,000 for the school on an annual basis, which will be useful to make sure the school can develop new programs and generate the same community that it has always had.”
Graves also said bond debt from the construction of the expansion at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. were paid off three years ago.
When fans of the school learned the Lincoln Park location was being listed for sale many were surprised and disappointed by the news, with some wondering if the school was doing okay financially.
“This place cultivates and nurtures the creativity that is starving in Chicago,” Tina Benitez said, a student since 2011. “There are not too many places that can provide such joy. The teachers provide such a safe and caring space, no matter of your talent or aspirations.”
Gordon and other students say the school’s friendly community is what they find most appealing about Old Town.
“The group of people who take the ensemble classes, which is a big part of the adult programing there, go support each other at our shows,” Gordon said. “We perform together, we drink together, we form bands together. It’s very much my home away from home where I found my tribe. If I’m not at work or with my family I’m either at the school taking a class, practicing for a class or socializing with people who I know from the school.”
By closing the Armitage building, Gordon says Old Town students who are closest to that location of all ages will have a harder time finding that sort of welcoming community.
Bridget Anderson is another student at the school. At 26 she’s often one of the youngest musicians at the school’s popular ensemble classes, which allow students to form a band and perform and practice together. She and other students say the school could increase its revenue by modernizing its enrollment outreach.
“In my opinion, the school could do a much better job of engaging young people to enroll in classes,” she said. “The only advertising I frequently see are CTA ads. I wish the school would have explored this untapped revenue source before selling off a historically and geographically significant piece of the school.”
Gordon’s day job is a professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern University. He agrees the school could do a much better job of using data it already has for targeted marketing focused on new student enrollment.
“They are sitting on a gold mine of information of students and people who have gone to concerts at the school,” he said. “Such a large amount of data of people who have taken classes or attended concerts at the school that they’re not using in any way to promote the school and increase enrollment.”
Gordon says he’s never gotten an email from the school about teachers offering classes based on his musical interests, which the school should have a record of based on his past class choices. Instead he has seen the cost of classes go up, which has led him to enroll in fewer courses.
“They do run ads on the radio, on WXRT. Incidentally, when I hear those ads what I hear is they have no idea if they’ve produced a result,” Gordon said. “None of those radio ads have promotion codes that let the school track if a student taking a class is doing so because they heard about them on the radio.”
Gordon says a better path to securing the school’s financial future is increasing revenue via new student enrollment, not by selling the Lincoln Park property for an endowment which is still years away from being implemented.
“The school expanded their real estate footprint and expanded their operating costs across three buildings,” Gordon said. “So that’s why they’re going to sell the Armitage building they own, to get a one-time infusion of cash.”
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