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Local News

Joliet City Council divided on Union Station lease renewal

Council takes tour before vote

JOLIET – New chandeliers and sconce lighting have been added. Rooms have been carpeted and ceilings repaired. Bussean Custom Caterers has even expanded its Union Station banquet facility into the lower floor, where he hopes to add a bar.

These are some of the improvements Bussean has made in anticipation of growing business now that brides-to-be won’t find vagrants sleeping on train station benches when they check out the historic building, which ceased operating as a train station last year.

But Bussean’s lease with the city of Joliet, which owns Union Station, expired in December.

And the City Council is divided on whether it should seek proposals from other banquet operators to see if it can get a better deal than what it gets from Bussean, which has been at Union Station since 2001.

Joliet City Council members toured Union Station Thursday afternoon, while Jeffrey Bussean and his staff showed them how he has invested in the building expecting a renewal of his lease.

“We made a lot of improvements in the building in anticipation of this all coming to fruition,” Bussean said. “There’s a lot more I’d like to do. But I’m not willing to do it without approval.”

Bussean did not get the approval he sought Thursday.

The council left Union Station for City Hall, where a combined committee voted, 3-2, to recommend the city seek proposals from banquet operators. But those voting yes appeared uncertain, and Mayor Bob O’Dekirk advised staff to hold off on making changes in Bussean’s arrangements until the full City Council votes.

“I think this matter should go immediately to the council,” O’Dekirk told committee members. “I’m not sure the council vote will reflect what happened here today.”

The proposal was scheduled to go to a vote at the June 16 council meeting.

Even Councilman Jim McFarland, the chief proponent for seeking proposals, suggested he could be swayed to stick with Bussean. But he first wanted to see an analysis from city staff showing that Bussean’s offer to pay rent of $10,000 a month is a good deal.

But McFarland said the only real way to find out what the city can get may be to put out requests for proposals.

“Are we getting the best bang for our buck?” McFarland asked. “The only way we know that is by opening it up [to other proposals].”

McFarland noted Bussean initially got the lease in 2001 when the city issued a request for proposals. The lease later was renewed by the city without seeking other proposals.

Councilman Terry Morris said he wanted a quality operator like Bussean and not necessarily one that would offer Joliet the most money. “At the same time,” he added. “I’m thinking we need to open it up to be fair to other businesses.”

Councilwoman Jan Quillman said Bussean “has a vested interest in Joliet,” noting his other banquet facility in the city, the Patrick Haley Mansion. “He took a risk on Union Station when no one else would,” she said.

There may be more interest in Union Station, which opened in 1912 but ceased operating as a train station last year. The city is building a new train station and moved boarding platforms to the other side of the tracks.

Nick Ulatowski, general manager for Bussean Custom Caterers, talked during the Joliet City Council tour about Union Station’s potential.

He said brides-to-be who planned receptions at Union Station at times would drive up to the station, see people sleeping inside, and leave. Bussean Custom Caterers would be notified by a phone call that they had changed their minds.

“The bookings are going to increase because this building is closed to the general public,” Ulatowski said.

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