DeKALB – Re:New DeKalb is considering how to continue its mission of revitalizing downtown DeKalb in a time of economic stagnation and uncertainty.
The organization is working with the city to update its long-term plan, said Re:New DeKalb President Frank Roberts. He said it should be completed within the next several months.
Roberts said the original plan called for the area between Walgreens and Pearl Street to undergo heavy commercial development. However, those plans fell through when the 2008 financial crisis began.
“The economy has changed so much, that we want to be very smart and resourceful with whatever dollars need to be spent for further redevelopment,” Roberts said. “We’re going to get this [plan] and get a design group to come in and develop a new plan, an updated plan, for the revitalization of our core of downtown.”
But at least one city official is wondering if it’s time the group closed up shop.
At the June 25 City Council meeting, First Ward Alderman David Jacobson asked Lindsey Engelsman, the organization’s marketing and special events coordinator, whether Re:New DeKalb had an idea of when it would be finished.
“All good things must come to an end,” Jacobson said at the time. “Do you guys have a window of operation for when you, your mission, runs out?”
Jacobson’s comments came during a discussion over the city of DeKalb giving $45,000 in tax increment financing to Re:New DeKalb for fiscal 2013. Jacobson was the only alderman present to vote against the funding resolution. The organization receives funding from both private and public entities.
“As long as Re:New DeKalb has funding, whether it’s public or private, we will continue to march forward,” Roberts said.
In a later interview, Jacobson said he harbors no malice toward Re:New DeKalb, but he wonders what the organization will do now that its downtown revitalization is, in his words, mostly complete.
“To me, it seems, their mission very much has to change or that they can begin to start wrapping up whatever it is they do,” Jacobson said. “That’s the choice they’re going to have to make as to where Re:New goes next.”
Jacobson said that while he likes how the downtown area looks, he said it is still not a “destination shopping area,” in which people go there specifically to shop. Certain anchor businesses need to be lured there from the Route 23 shopping strip, he added.
Another concern of Jacobson’s is how TIF funding – where Re:New DeKalb receives its funding – is spent. Jacobson said those monies should be spent only on redeveloping blighted areas, which the downtown was at some point. Jacobson said there are many neighborhoods in the city that need to be improved.
“There’s many blighted neighborhoods that we can make an impact to fix,” Jacobson said. “And instead, we’re spending the money on other projects, whether it be beautifying the downtown area, whether it be ... remodeling City Hall. That’s not what that money is for.”
City Manager Mark Biernacki described Re:New DeKalb as being instrumental in carrying out at least $10 million in public improvements in the downtown area. Some of the blighted areas are now vacant properties that will need to be marketed.
DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen said it is a possibility that Re:New DeKalb could end, and it’s a question that should be addressed. He added, however, that he wants to see the organization and its efforts continue.
Povlsen said he did not know what the future of Re:New DeKalb will be, but he hopes the decision will come sooner rather than later. After fiscal 2013, the organization will be ineligible for TIF funding from the city, he said.
Povlsen said he would like to see the organization’s private partners take on more of the funding responsibility, but he added that he didn’t know how it would be funded from the city’s perspective. During her presentation to the council June 25, Engelsman said the organization is 51 percent funded by public sources, and 49 percent funded by private sources.
While the organization considers its future, Engelsman is busy working on programs in the present. Since June 7, Re:New DeKalb has hosted a farmers market in Van Buer Plaza every Thursday and will continue to do so until Sept. 27. Engelsman said about 300 people come out to the farmers market.
Engelsman said she regularly works with downtown business owners for events such as Spooktacular, held the Saturday before Halloween. Nestle, which has a distribution center in DeKalb, donates candy to about 35 businesses along the downtown strip. Kids and their parents can then come trick-or-treating for two hours and participate in activities at House Cafe and Egyptian Theatre.
But planning events is not all of what Engelsman does. She also communicates about construction in the downtown area.
“What I do is to make sure the surrounding businesses know what’s going on week to week with that construction,” Engelsman said. “If they need daily updates, I go out, walk around and let them know what’s going on and how that construction is going to impact them.”
Biernacki said he sees a future for Re:New DeKalb because the organization is involved with the city’s downtown events.
“We’ve made significant public investment in the downtown,” Biernacki said. “I think it’s important to continue to market its use with special events and new businesses and so forth. No different than our continued investment in the [DeKalb County Economic Development Corp.], the visitors bureau or the [DeKalb Chamber of Commerce].”