DeKALB – John Rey saw pedestrian bridges under construction to an urban renewal area.
Doug Baker saw a farmer’s market three blocks long filled with community and university members, musical acts, survey research projects, a community living room of sorts, not far from campus.
The weekend of Sept. 14, Rey, DeKalb’s mayor, and Baker, Northern Illinois University’s president, saw these things on a trip to Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho. Baker was provost there before taking the NIU job.
With the NIU football team playing that weekend in Moscow, Baker saw an opportunity to further strengthen an already-strong friendship between himself and Rey. Through presentations with city and university officials, a bus tour and a trip to the farmer’s market, Baker wanted to show Rey how Moscow, a community about half the size of DeKalb, and the University of Idaho worked together.
Then they watched the Huskies’ football victory.
“[Moscow’s farmer’s market] became a place where you can see community being built and strengthened,” Baker said. “I think those are things we can build on, those kinds of activities.”
It was another step in Rey and Baker’s early partnership as they attempt to alter the area’s town-gown relationship with their mostly-shared vision of collaboration.
“I guess the teamwork that I saw present in Moscow is something I hope to build here in the DeKalb community,” Rey said. “A can-do attitude was expressed from everybody that presented to us, and I realize they were showcasing their community, so I’m sure they were showing the positive edge of that, but a real can-do attitude and values from that community were seen in that community.”
Rey said that when he first met Baker, he thought NIU’s new president had a serious commitment to building a relationship between the community and the university.
“He acknowledged that is a part of his, being, if you will, in terms of focusing the university,” Rey said. “I learned very quickly that, that concern from Doug is very sincere and heartfelt.”
The feeling was mutual, and the two say they’ve become friends in the early parts of their tenures in their respective positions.
“It turned out we had a lot of shared ground,” Baker said.
Baker’s hire was approved in April, and he started at the end of June; Rey was elected in April. Both acknowledged that there were some inherent advantages of two new faces coming to the table with a fresh set of eyes and new ideas for a town-gown relationship that at times has been strained.
NIU Vice President of Public Safety and Community Relations Bill Nicklas has been on both sides of the town-gown relationship. He was Sycamore’s city manager for 13 years and DeKalb’s city manager from 1992-97 among various other city government positions.
Nicklas said it’s important that both sides are willing to work together, and that tone is set at the top.
“What I hope is that both the city residents and businesses and all units of the university understand, and I think I’m seeing this, that this is a key moment,” Nicklas said. “This is a moment unlike any that we can remember, to move together.”
One key area of common interest Baker and Rey are pushing for is the “Communiversity Commons” portion of the DeKalb City Center plan that was adopted by the DeKalb City Council. The commons would stretch from the Kishwaukee River to First Street, an underutilized area between the NIU campus and downtown DeKalb.
Rey said he’s in the process of forming a project management team that will oversee the city center plan, while Baker is focused on the strategic planning from the university side.
Baker said it will take time to conceptualize a design and then build support before any construction begins. He wants to get community stakeholders involved and get ideas and designs down on paper before the concept begins to take hold.
“So it will take a little time, but it’s not an idle fancy,” Baker said. “It’s something we’re really thinking about.”
It all adds up to what the two hope will be a fruitful partnership with frequent collaboration that benefits the university and the city.
“They enjoy talking with each other,” Nicklas said. “They kick around ideas. They’re both idea people.”
And with similar ideas, thus far, on what the town-gown relationship should be for this area.
“Really, Northern’s future is DeKalb’s future, and likewise DeKalb’s future is Northern’s future,” Rey said. “The two are intertwined.”