We’re on board with the DeKalb City Council’s decision to hire a full-time staffer to specialize in economic development – provided it produces tangible results.
Hiring an employee to focus on economic development will not be groundbreaking – the city had an economic development department but dismantled it in 2009. Since 2010, Roger Hopkins has been the city’s economic development consultant, working on a contract basis.
We’re skeptical that the staff vs. contractor divide is the reason that economic development hasn’t been more brisk in DeKalb, however. More likely, it is attributable to slow population growth, economic conditions and lack of a clear policy direction on how to spur development.
As Hopkins pointed out, the city has seen less than 1 percent residential growth in recent years as the housing market has stalled, and that can be a turn-off for retailers.
DeKalb Mayor John Rey has said he would like to see more focus on some areas that have not received as much attention, such as the South Fourth Street corridor and west Lincoln Highway.
Those areas face challenges as well, however. The South Fourth Street corridor includes a polluted former junkyard as well as crumbling infrastructure.
West Lincoln Highway (which begins west of First Street) has been the site of many big ideas, including ShoDeen’s “NB&T Square” project, which, has yet to materialize aside from the new NB&T building. ShoDeen representatives have not sounded optimistic about the chances of development starting there in the near future.
District 428 officials are not keen on creation of any new tax-increment financing districts to incentivize development. Some residents of the Ellwood Historic Neighborhood are up in arms over even the suggestion of removing some of the rental properties along Harrison and John streets east of Northern Illinois University.
City officials said that having a city employee focused on economic development will allow for better cooperation with other important city staff. But the underlying challenges and obstacles will remain.
The person hired for the job must be capable of overcoming those challenges and bringing new and improved businesses to DeKalb.