DeKALB – Jennifer Groce was raised believing in the ideals of her great-uncle, who taught her that government is not a “them,” it’s an “us.”
When she left Decatur for college, she wanted to study the federal government, but it wasn’t until she saw the DeKalb League of Women Voters in action that she began to appreciate local government.
“They put the ‘good’ in good governance. They walked it,” Groce said. “Getting to come in and see that, the change they had been a part of, was so inspiring.”
Twenty-five years after she arrived in DeKalb, Groce is one of four candidates vying for the mayor’s office in the Tuesday’s election.
When Groce took the stage at a closed-door candidates’ forum hosted by the DeKalb Area Renters Association in January, she described herself as the “ice rink lady.”
Groce is a research associate at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies. Before that, she was director of Re:New DeKalb when the city bought and later dismantled a synthetic ice rink that sat at the corner of First and Locust streets.
Groce said she initially thought it wouldn’t work, but popular demand and the fact it was synthetic pushed her into supporting it.
“It just seemed like, boy, this is really aligning well,” Groce said. “But the lesson learned is, if you don’t execute something with excellence, don’t do it. ... We should have looked harder at the conversations we had with the other units of government.”
Groce joined Re:New DeKalb in 2003, when it was known as Main Street DeKalb. Groce says the community has benefitted from the organization’s work.
In particular, she reflected on the praise the group received from members of the Illinois General Assembly for its use of tax increment financing, a special tax mechanism that local governments use to spur redevelopment in blighted areas.
In 2011, she left Re:New DeKalb for her NIU position, which she described as a tough decision, but necessary one.
“I thought they needed a different level of expertise to really guide them in that [next phase of Re:New DeKalb],” Groce said.
Collaboration was a hallmark of her work with Re:New DeKalb, and it’s been a hallmark of her campaign. She has frequently called for more cooperation between the city and other agencies, such as NIU, Sycamore, the NIU police and local businesses.
Groce said cooperation would help lower some costs if they all worked toward common goals.
“It’s powerful when municipalities go in together and say, ‘Look, it’s not just DeKalb residents going into Olive Garden. It’s going to be all of us,’ “ Groce said. “That’s a new way of thinking here.”
But she said it will be hard to stop cities from competing for businesses, particularly those that generate high sales-tax revenue, such as auto dealers.
Groce said DeKalb should develop plans for sharing sales-tax revenue with competing municipalities, or rely on a regional plan for economic development, instead of trying to compete with lucrative incentive packages.
“We need to play the game smarter,” Groce said.
In order to better attract businesses to DeKalb, the city should work with existing companies and governments to make sure the needs of the new company are taken care of, she said.
“Could they be a supply chain for the existing firms that are here?” Groce said. “Could they do contract development together? ... The key to business recruitment, I think, is to make sure we have an infrastructure in place.”
Groce added that the inconsistency between the City Council, its staff, and its economic development commission can create an unfriendly business environment.
Collaboration can also help in the city’s issues with housing, she said. In 2012, the City Council passed new housing rules meant to improve its stock of rental and owner-occupied housing.
Groce felt the DeKalb County Housing Authority and NIU could help the city’s new housing bureau maximize its resources and enhance its mission to improve the housing stock.
One housing rule that has been criticized is the annual registration fee landlords must pay. Groce said she saw this as a necessary evil that will have to be reviewed, but the issue of housing will be one DeKalb will be facing for a long time.
“I am adamant that this will probably be one of those fundamental, long-term issues in DeKalb,” Groce said. “Not necessarily rental. It’s both rental and owner-occupied.”
Despite her background and expertise in economic development and government, it was the city’s public safety issues that drove her into the race. Groce said she is worried that DeKalb’s crime issues are beginning to overshadow everything else.
“If we have a real or perceived crime problem, it’s all for naught,” Groce said. “And when you look at communities in the area, we have a growing reputation for our crime problem.”
Groce wants a proactive police department, but because of a lack of resources, it has been reactive. She described the department as doing more with less.
And because of this lack of resources, the police department has not been able to enforce the law and protect residents as well as it should, she said.
“That’s a testament to how thrifty we are and how dedicated our staff is,” Groce said. “But as a community, we deserve and we need to expect that as a community, we aren’t just getting by.”
Groce said the city needs to prioritize what it wants and what it needs to provide residents. In Groce’s view, some equipment upgrades in other city departments are optional. She also pointed to the DeKalb’s desire for a K-9 unit, which she said can be provided by other agencies.
But she also felt the city could do some better belt-tightening with regard to the economic incentives it is offers to national chains.
“We need that revenue to provide the resources our police department needs,” Groce said.