DeKALB – DeKalb Mayor John Rey believes being hopeful about the city of DeKalb is not enough to make it a vibrant college community.
Real change, he said, will take a visionary way of thinking, a gritty determination and leaders who want to make long-term changes rather than short-term moves for political gain. Prosperity also will come from collaboration with Northern Illinois University to overcome challenges both bodies face, Rey contended.
“We’re in this game together,” Rey said. “The success of NIU is vital to the success of this community. We are partners with strengths of students, staff, faculty and other residents working together, recognizing our legacy and growing into our future as a cool college town.”
About a year into their tenures, Rey and NIU President Doug Baker joined City Manager Anne Marie Gaura in detailing the past year and their visions to bring the city and the university together during the annual State of the City event Tuesday at Hopkins Community Center in DeKalb.
Rey looks at the long haul
Standing before a crowd of about 150 people with a screen reading “Our legacy, Our future – Together” behind him, Rey called for a better DeKalb, a goal he knows he won’t reach quickly and likely will involve moves that will be met with opposition.
Among those moves is one that will change the city’s Ellwood Historic Neighborhood, which sits between the university campus and downtown DeKalb. The neighborhood is seen in the City Center plan adopted in June 2013 as the connection between the two. The neighborhood also came up in NIU’s Bold Futures workshops last fall and this spring.
Rey envisions development in that area being driven by a private business, with the city offering support.
Although potential changes have stirred consternation among residents, plans to see some changes in the neighborhood won’t go away, Rey said, even though residents would be involved in future conversations.
“We foster open conversations in neighborhoods and we don’t let the past limit possibilities of our future,” Rey said. “We must be open to new opportunities where the bonds of friendship and leadership can grow and with preservation of the historic base from which we started.”
Rey noted some internal changes the city has already made, pointing to the city’s current budget and staff as a representation of the city’s changing structure.
Since Gaura assumed her role as city manager in January, the city outsourced its building department and is in the process of re-establishing a community development department.
“Effective organizational change takes time, with deliberate planning and action,” Rey said.
Baker shares his vision
Rey also touted plans to grow existing businesses and attract new ones, which Baker said could help curb the enrollment decline that’s plagued the university for the past few years. Baker said in 10 years, the university’s enrollment has dropped from 25,000 to 20,000.
Part of the problem, Baker said, is that students don’t engage in DeKalb outside of class. While some volunteer and internship opportunities have given a number of students engagement opportunities, a problem still exists.
“Our university and universities across the country have retention problems,” Baker said. “Students drop out and sometimes it’s money, but some of the time it’s social attachment.”
Baker cited a recent survey that found of the students who go home during weekends, only 11 percent do so for work. He also said half of the faculty at NIU commutes from outside DeKalb and Sycamore.
Baker applauded programs that place NIU students with local nonprofits and agency boards, but said a need still exists to foster more volunteer, internship, arts, culture, and social opportunities to keep students at NIU and in DeKalb.
“Keep working with our students, please,” Baker said. “It helps transform their lives, and they help transform this community.”
As is DeKalb, NIU also is working through a period of transition. The university hired several new leaders, including Harlan Teller who will try to change NIU’s image as he serves as the interim vice president of marketing and communications for the next two years.
“I don’t like being the best kept secret in the state,” Baker said. “And I don’t like DeKalb being the best kept secret in the state.”
Gaura details city finances
As the city and its leaders strive to improve the community, it will happen in tandem with a review of the city’s financial challenges, Gaura said.
“As long as we identify what those challenges are, we address those challenges financially, we’re going to be able to move the community forward as the mayor highlighted,” Gaura said.
The coming year will bring closer scrutiny to city finances. Gaura explained that the city is trying to achieve financial stability, maintain streets, fund pension obligations and pay for capital expenditures. The latter of which, NIU will help support through a five-year agreement for fire service.
NIU will contribute $275,000 toward the $550,000 cost of purchasing a fire ladder truck to replace its current 24-year-old truck, a purchase Gaura said couldn’t be made without the university’s help.
This year also will be one of planning for the city as it embarks on a strategic plan and housing study that will be facilitated by NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies. A comprehensive plan addressing land use will follow, Gaura said.
Areas of collaboration
• NIU contributing $275,000 for a fire ladder truck
• City completing a strategic plan, housing study and comprehensive plan with NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies
• City and NIU hosting Camp Power for more than 100 children at University Village