JOLIET – The controversy over the Rialto Square Theatre marquee became stranger Friday as the theater missed out a possible second $350,000 contribution to pay for the proposed sign after asking the would-be donor for time to seek public input on the design.
Joliet businessman Jay Bergman, owner of Petco Petroleum Corp. in Hinsdale, offered to give the Rialto board a $350,000 check at its meeting Wednesday to, in his words, "get the sign controversy behind us."
Rialto leaders, already stung by public criticism and accusation of not being transparent when they took a previous $350,000 donation before publicly revealing a marquee design, said they wanted time for a public review of a new version of the sign.
Bergman decided instead to drop his offer, and the Rialto appears to have missed out on $700,000 in donations with no way to pay for a marquee already in production at a cost of $120,000 so far.
The Joliet City Council has scheduled a special meeting Wednesday and wants the Rialto board present to discuss the Bergman donation.
"My desire was to get everything behind us – the marquee controversy and all that," said Bergman, a lifelong Joliet resident who serves on the Illinois Board of Higher Education and is a trustee at Illinois State University. "That's why my offer was, 'Let's get this thing done quickly.' I was going to write a check for $350,000."
Bergman, like Ed Czerkies before him, said he was not interested in going through a review process before the Rialto accepted his $350,000 donation.
Czerkies, a retired Joliet businessman, made the first $350,000 donation. But he pulled it back Jan. 8 when the Rialto board tabled a donation agreement as members said they wanted more time to review the latest marquee proposal.
That action by the board was applauded by critics, who opposed a modern marquee with a memorial to Czerkies' parents. Czerkies said the Rialto board appeared to be "baffled" by its critics and that he did not see an end to the controversy.
Bergman said he did not want his name on the sign. He had discussed with Rialto officials using the same design, however, and replacing the Czerkies' tribute with the words "The Jewel of Joliet," a phrase commonly used in praise of the Rialto, and "Established in 1926" in reference to the theater's opening.
"You're never going to please everybody," Bergman said. "You're either going to please 99 percent of the people – and I think this would have pleased most people – and take the $350,000, and make 1 percent of the people unhappy. Or, you can not take the $350,000 and deal with the 1 percent."
Rialto officials did not return calls for comment but issued a written statement late Friday afternoon explaining their position.
"At no time was his gift rejected," said the statement signed by board Chairman James Smith, General Manager Randy Green, and Tricia Simpson, president of the Rialto Square Theatre Foundation.
Board leaders from the Will County Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority and the Rialto foundation met Wednesday evening to discuss Bergman's "stipulations for the gift," the statement said.
"Board leadership stated that proper public review needed to occur with a fully transparent process with public input," the statement said. "We asked Mr. Bergman to allow us time to follow this public process and he then indicated that he would withdraw his gift.
"Mr. Bergman was insistent that this transaction occur quickly and with little time for the community to react. The leadership of both boards in good conscience could not accept his gift knowing that there needed to be a transparent process."
The Bergman gift would have likely met some criticism. Although the marquee would not have had a memorial tribute, which opponents did not like, it still would have been a modern marquee.
On Tuesday, a representative from the "Rialto Belongs to the People" Facebook group, which led the opposition to the sign with the memorial to the Czerkies, told the Joliet City Council the group would insist on a marquee similar to the original 1926 design on the theater now.
Mary Beth Gannon, one of the "Rialto Belongs to the People" leaders who wants a seat on the Rialto board, said Friday a marquee design should be publicly reviewed.
"I think any type of changes to the marquee would have to be presented to the [Rialto] board," Gannon said.
Gannon said she hopes Bergman reconsiders his donation withdrawal.
"I just hope that he meets with us and takes our considerations in mind that the new sign is not historically accurate," Gannon said.
Meanwhile, the city called a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, 150 W. Jefferson St., to discuss the Bergman donation with the Rialto board.
"We've got to get to the bottom of this," said Councilman Bob O'Dekirk, the council's liaison to the Rialto board.
Bergman and his wife, Lori, are active in the community and make contributions to many organizations, although usually quietly. In 2012, the Bergmans donated $782,000 to American Red Cross, Greater Chicago Region. Bergman is on the Red Cross board.
The Bergman donation offer became public knowledge Friday when he sent a letter to the City Council and local media to describe what happened. Bergman said he was concerned about rumors after getting a call from a local businessman who had heard about the donation offer. What the caller had heard included some wrong information, Bergman said.
"I wanted to get ahead of the rumor," he said.
The letter describes Bergman telling Rialto officials on Jan. 12 – four days after Czerkies withdrew his donation – that he was willing to consider donating $350,000 "to dampen the sign controversy."
Bergman writes that he met with Smith and Green at the Rialto to review the marquee design. On Thursday, Bergman writes, he received a call from Smith and Green telling him that they had "decided to decline my offer" after meeting with Simpson and Steve Randich from the Rialto foundation.
"You indicate that there was a small group of people that may want some changes to the marquee and that you were going to form a committee to reconsider the project," Bergman writes.
Bergman adds "... let me say that I think that you guys made a HUGE mistake."