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Washington Center woes are ‘plantation politics’

Former Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) is pointing fingers at City Hall and at her successor for a foreclosure lawsuit that threatens to shutter her signature project: the Harold Washington Cultural Center.

“It’s plantation politics. Chicago is going back to plantation politics,” said Tillman, whose daughter runs the 1,000-seat auditorium at 47th and King Drive.

“There is a conspiracy to [either] close the Harold Washington Center and push us off that corner or remove us . . . so they can have absolute control over who and how it operates.”

The latest in a string of controversies surrounding the theater that, Tillman had high hopes, would anchor a “Chicago Blues District” along 47th Street was triggered by a $1.3 million foreclosure lawsuit filed by ShoreBank.

That gave City Hall grounds to declare Tobacco Road Inc. — the group that operates the center -in default of the grant agreement that provided $7.7 million in city funds to build the center.

Armed with an audit by the city’s Office of Compliance, the Daley administration has further accused the center of falling short of its obligation to be booked for a minimum of 239 days a year.

“The goal all along has been to make this project a thriving institution. But . . . they weren’t meeting that threshold,” said Peter Scales, a spokesman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

The city is waiting for a resolution of the foreclosure suit before taking default action. But it also has launched a preliminary search for alternative uses.

“We want the facility to continue to contribute to the community. We’re trying to figure out the best way to make that happen,” said Susan Massel, a spokeswoman for the city’s Community Development Department.

Jimalita Tillman, executive director of Tobacco Road, acknowledged that the center has fallen victim to the prolonged recession “like every other theater and community-based arts organization” across the nation.

But she insisted that the center has been booked for “at least 18 activities per month” since January and that it owed just $49,800 when the foreclosure suit was filed in August. That was five months after ShoreBank doubled the interest rate on the loan — to 14 percent -without warning, she said.

“I’m being politically harassed and targeted by the current alderman. This was her platform the entire time she ran,” Jimalita Tillman said.

Dorothy Tillman added, “The current alderman said this building would never be built. She said it would never open. She said it was a white elephant. She would like to take control. The city would like to take control.”

Ald. Pat Dowell, who defeated Tillman in 2007, called the charges from mother and daughter “ridiculous.”

“Tobacco Road is responsible for paying their mortgage. If Tobacco Road doesn’t pay their mortgage, that’s on her. That’s not on my office. It’s not on the city. It’s not on the bank. If she can’t handle the loan, the bank is doing what they’re supposed to do — which is to take that back,” Dowell said.

Pressed on what should become of the building, Dowell said, “We need to find some professional, cultural management company or some other cultural organization that has a track record of running… this kind of venue. They should be able to assume the loan.”

BY FRAN SPIELMAN [email protected]suntimes.com

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