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Our View: Now playing – Misplaced priorities

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

It is sometimes difficult to discern the priorities of the DeKalb City Council when it comes to the downtown area.

Take the restored DeKalb Theater sign and marquee that were unveiled last week. It was restored with the help of a grant of up to $90,000 in tax increment financing funds. The marquee is hanging outside the building at 145 N. Third St., just off Lincoln Highway in downtown DeKalb.

The giant sign and marquee look great, but beyond that, they don’t serve much purpose. The DeKalb Theater, which opened in the late 1940s, has been closed for more than 20 years.

The business currently in the building is Debutante’s School of Cosmetology and Nail Technology – fine if you want to learn to give a manicure, but not if you wanted to actually see a movie.

Former fourth ward Ald. Brendon Gallagher led the charge to restore the sign, which he said should be preserved because it had nostalgic value and was a landmark. DeKalb Mayor John Rey called it a beacon of the area’s history at a ceremony last week.

Were there actually a theater still operating there, it would be more understandable. But the history is that the building is one of the places where you could see a movie in DeKalb many years ago. Longtime residents probably remember going to the theater – many others do not.

What’s more, the city already has an operating historic theater (and an older one at that) just blocks away in the Egyptian Theater, which it has rightly helped to restore and preserve.

Cosmetology school owner Tom Rogers wanted the DeKalb sign restored just as it was, with neon lighting. Energy efficient LED lights were not deemed authentic enough for a sign advertising a business that no longer exists.

Rogers’ business will pay the annual operating cost for the sign, an estimated $2,000 a year or more.

On the other hand, the council balked when the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce requested $45,000 this year to fund a position for a community event coordinator. Chamber officials said the move was necessary because Re:New DeKalb has decided to become an entirely private organization and no longer will be hosting the events.

The council first offered only $25,000 before later committing to the full $45,000; they seem leery of continuing to fund the position in the future. The person who held the job with Re:New has quit, and the city’s one-year commitment might make it difficult to find a replacement.

It bears noting that funding for the two projects comes from different sources. The chamber position will be funded with proceeds from the city’s hotel/motel tax.

However, it does seem odd that an expensive sign restoration for a theater long gone is unveiled to fanfare, while funding for a position that could actively benefit the area is only grudgingly approved.

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