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Bigger, better downtown DeKalb envisioned

DeKALB – In the next 10 years, residents want downtown DeKalb to be bigger and better.

About 50 community leaders gathered at Eduardo’s Mexican Restaurant on Tuesday to discuss potential improvements to downtown DeKalb, one of which was expanding the core to the east and especially west toward the Northern Illinois University campus. The event was sponsored by Re:New DeKalb, the city of DeKalb, and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.

Integration of NIU into the downtown was a major focus, with participants suggesting building the physical downtown outward, establishing easier access from the campus to downtown or even having NIU hold classes, such as art, in some of the vacant space downtown to introduce students to the area.

Nathan Dettman, a DeKalb resident who has worked at downtown businesses such as The House Cafe and has friends who own businesses downtown, said targeting young people is key to the future.

“We already have a heavy shopping area on Sycamore Road,” Dettman said. “We need things that will draw students and young families to the area or the expansion would be a waste.”

Bill Nicklas, an NIU administrator, said NIU is the economic engine of the area and has more potential to contribute to the downtown, even if that means expanding the boundaries past the existing small section between Fourth and First streets.

Frank Roberts, president of Re:New DeKalb, said when he talks with outside firms about DeKalb, the first word that comes to mind is NIU.

Roberts said that although there are still economic challenges, community members are in control of the future of the downtown in the next five to 10 years.

“We can drive a lot of what our future is about,” Roberts said. “This is a really important next step for us. There are a lot of opportunities.”

Ryan Garcia, project coordinator with the SAA Design Group, headed the meeting. He said the city is moving in the right direction.

“There has been a substantial public investment in the core [of downtown],” he said. “The theme of today’s meeting is ‘downtown is everybody’s business.’ Everybody has to stay invested.”

DeKalb 1st Ward Alderman David Jacobson said he would like to see the focus on encouraging NIU graduates to stay in DeKalb and develop businesses downtown. He said officials should consider using tax increment financing district money to help graduates launch start-up businesses.

The idea was well received by Ariel Ries, owner of Small Town Skate Shop. Ries, a marketing graduate from NIU, said she started her business downtown with a $5,000 investment and would have enjoyed assistance early on.

“I had to work my butt off as a waitress ... just to keep my store open,” she said.

Garcia touted improvements the city has made since the 2006 plan for downtown improvement was drafted.

He said the city has improved streetscapes and walkability to improve the look of the downtown area. He also praised the developments of the Frank Van Buer Plaza and the National Bank & Trust location west of First Street.

But he said goals from 2006 still need to be accomplished, such as expanded parking, screening and buffering the railroad tracks and residential development around the downtown area.

Those in attendance said expanded parking was the top priority that needs to be implemented from the 2006 plan.

Rosa Balli, an owner of Rosita’s and Eduardo’s in DeKalb, said she often sees people drive around in circles looking for parking. Some in attendance suggested developing a parking garage while others said handicap parking, especially street side, should be considered.

The top priority, Valli said, still needs to be marketing the downtown.

“We need to focus on creating more foot traffic,” she said. “We need to develop that marketing aspect.”

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