The spirit of cooperation between the top officials at Northern Illinois University and the city of DeKalb was evident at Tuesday’s State of the city breakfast hosted by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.
So were the challenges that they and our area face.
The City of DeKalb must find budget solutions for problems including a new plan to fund road maintenance, which could cost millions. It is seeking ways to upgrade and improve its housing stock. NIU must seek solutions to a decade-long trend of declining enrollment that has seen its student body shrink almost 20 percent, from about 25,000 to about 20,000.
City and university officials must work together to make the campus community more connected with the broader community.
It’s not certain yet how all of these challenges will be met. It is certain that the city and university will have a better chance at overcoming them through cooperation than in working separately.
They will need enough people to buy in to make it happen. DeKalb Mayor John Rey talked about engaging the community through dialogue and respecting neighborhoods because change can not come without enough people concluding that a given plan is the right way forward.
In some quarters of the city, such as the Ellwood Historic Neighborhood, there is work to be done in this regard.
Rey does not appear to be shrinking from the challenge, however. In his opening remarks Tuesday, he went straight to the “Bold Ideas” plans to create more connection between NIU’s campus and downtown DeKalb. He talked of planning to remain in the job for the long haul and focusing on the long-term good rather than short-term moves that might be politically expedient.
“Effective organizational change takes time, with deliberate planning and action,” Rey said.
DeKalb is crying out for a lasting change that can shake up old patterns, bring new life to areas that have been underutilized or allowed to fall into disrepair, and make the community stronger and more appealing, so that others will want to join it.
Rey understands this, and so does NIU President Doug Baker, who gave some interesting insights into the people of NIU. For example, of those students who leave the area on weekends, only 11 percent are doing so for work. The rest are leaving for other reasons, he said.
Students who do not develop an attachment to the community are less likely to remain in school. One strategy for keeping students enrolled: Make the community more appealing to them through creating more social, cultural and other opportunities.
Likewise, almost half of NIU’s faculty and staff do not live in DeKalb and Sycamore, Baker said.
If we want to make our communities stronger, more vibrant places to live, we need to strive to make them more appealing to the people who fuel our area’s biggest economic engine, as well as other businesses and entrepreneurs.
DeKalb needs to become, as Rey said, a “cool college town.”
Doing so will take time, vision, and buy-in from members of the community.
If our leaders keep working together with citizens and students, it can be achieved.