JOLIET – After more than a month of at times heated debate over a proposed new marquee for the Rialto Square Theatre, the man who donated $350,000 that was to be used for the project has asked for his money back.
James Smith, president of the Rialto’s board, said Ed Czerkies has asked for his donation to be returned, a request that will be honored.
“I’m tremendously sorry for what Ed and his whole family had to go through,” Smith said. “I’m especially sorry because I think the idea of a new marquee is not only needed, I think it’s a good thing we tried to do.”
Czerkies made his request immediately after the Thursday decision by the theater’s governing body, the Will County Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority Board, to table a resolution that spelled out the Rialto’s commitment in principle to the donation from the Joliet-area businessman.
The proposed agreement stated the marquee would bear the inscription “In Memory of Michael & Mary Czerkies” and the inscription would remain on the marquee for at least 25 years.
The agreement also would have ensured the marquee “shall be kept in good order and repair for the life of the marquee” and that the assurance was being given “in consideration of the generous gift made by Edward M. Czerkies, and is a contractual right given Edward M. Czerkies, his heirs and assigns to enforce for the duration of the assurance given herein.”
Smith said had the resolution been approved Thursday, it would have allowed for a few weeks to finalize the exact design.
“Ed was fairly emphatic. I tried to convey that to my board as diplomatically as I could, he’d like to see this agreement tonight,” Smith said.
Smith said he spoke with Czerkies, who was at the meeting, shortly after the motion was tabled.
“And he said, ‘I’m sorry, I know you did your best, but I want my money back. I’m done with this,’ ” Smith said.
Smith said the donation will be returned.
“I know the honorable thing is to give it back, and I want to do the honorable thing,” he said.
“It was something along the lines of you are a generous man. I’m sorry you had to go through this. I know you had the best of intentions,” Smith said when asked about his response to Czerkies.
Attempts Thursday evening to reach Czerkies were not immediately successful.
Weeks of controversy
Criticism of the marquee began almost immediately following its Nov. 24 unveiling during the annual Festival of Trees, with the main concern being the prominent memorial inscription to the donor’s parents, “In Memory of Michael & Mary Czerkies.”
Some argued the design didn’t fit with the 88-year-old building’s character, while others raised complaints as to why public input wasn’t sought and questioned if the process was transparent enough.
It prompted an online firestorm of criticism from many area residents on Facebook, a request for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to determine whether the Historic Preservation Commission violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act, a call to city officials to withhold funding from the historic theater, and a protest outside the theater during an event.
The negative reaction Czerkies personally received prompted him to write a letter sent to The Herald-News and other local media that he would be happy to have his money back.
“Over the past few weeks, I have become aware of numerous negative and unkind comments made by concerned citizens about both myself and my three sons. This public reaction was completely unexpected,” he wrote in the letter sent Dec. 22.
The letter also stated donors want to know their contributions would be appreciated, but he had “come to the conclusion that the donation made to the Rialto Square Theatre and the city of Joliet will not be viewed in a positive way.”
The board was supplied during Thursday’s special meeting with an updated draft design from Indiana-based Landmark Sign Group. It showed the font for the memorial inscription was reduced by 20 percent. However, the rest of the memorial remained the same.
While board members and residents at the meeting thanked Czerkies for his $350,000 donation, the board decided to table the resolution until the new design is completed. The board also wanted answers to questions raised after Cheryl Grate, president of Joliet-based Grate Signs Inc., told them Thursday that her company, which has worked with the Rialto in the past, wasn’t allowed to bid on the sign’s construction.
“We would like more time,” board member Dave Thornton said.
Board Vice Chair Daniel Vera made a motion to table the agreement “until the questions raised today are answered and having seen [the new design] for the first time, that this come back before the board on Jan. 28.”
The withdrawal of the donation means a hit financially for the theater. The theater now owes $350,000 to Czerkies, and is in contract to the sign company for about $200,000, as the marquee already was under construction. About $120,000 of that is paid, Smith said, so the theater is in the hole for about $430,000.
When asked if the city could bail out the Rialto, Mayor Tom Giarrante said no.
“I thought I made it pretty clear, don’t come to the city because we don’t have it,” he said. “If in fact this stands, they’re going to have to go out and find a way to raise the money.”
When asked what’s next, Smith said it was “back to the drawing board” when it came to the marquee.
“Several people in the business community that I respect say finish the sign and work on some sort of some of fundraising campaign to pay for it,” he said.
If the board decides to continue down that path, Smith said the first focus would be on fundraising, and the second would be the design.
“I’d love to have another donor, either private or corporate,” Smith said when asked how the Rialto would go about raising the money. “Quite frankly, I’ve heard from a number of corners of the community, and even some of the opponents, who have said they wouldn’t be adverse to some sort of company or corporate name up there. The main contention was this ‘In memory of Michael and Mary Czerkies.’ ”
• News Editor Bob Okon contributed to this report.