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Public reactions mixed for next phase of STEAM Learning Center plan

City funding still a concern

DeKALB – How much money the city of DeKalb would have to contribute to the construction of a $13 million STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) Learning Center in downtown DeKalb drew debate during Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

To determine whether the multimillion-dollar project can be adequately funded, city staff are recommending a philanthropic market feasibility assessment, which would show whether the necessary funds could be raised to support the construction and ongoing operations of the STEAM Learning Center. The study would cost no more than $114,000.

Representatives from RATIO Architects Inc. and Ter Molen Watkins and Brandt, a Chicago-based fundraising consulting firm, were present at the meeting to outline the plan. According to the results of a feasibility study introduced in February, if the project were approved, the city may be required to pay $4 million in tax increment financing dollars for the construction.

A number of residents spoke during the meeting or emailed DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith to give their thoughts on the project. Reactions were mixed, with some people praising the learning center as a huge draw for the community, and some against the idea of spending more taxpayer money on a building that may not be a worthwhile investment.

DeKalb resident John Anderson said that with no revenue streams to provide new city vehicles or to provide adequate maintenance of city streets, it doesn’t make sense to fund such a project.

Several of the speakers in support of the project were Northern Illinois University faculty, including Anne Kaplan, vice president of outreach, engagement and regional development; Federico Sciammarella, vice president of mechanical engineering; and Nicole LaDue, assistant professor of geology and environmental geoscience.

LaDue lives in DeKalb and said that her family would have to drive 45 minutes to have the experiences that could be offered within the learning center.

“This is an opportunity to reclaim some of the revenue we are losing to other communities as a result of not having the same opportunities offered in some of the suburbs,” she said.

First Ward Alderman David Jacobson said that although most people would support the project, it would be inappropriate to use TIF dollars to guess and see whether someone else will come to the table as a major donor.

“I’m struggling to understand why we have to take the lead,” Jacobson said. “I don’t think we should be gambling with taxpayers’ money.”

Second Ward Alderman Bill Finucane said that while he is concerned about the amount required from the city upfront, the city still should go ahead and complete the study to know where it will be at when it comes time for a final vote on the project.

Smith said his sense was that the idea of a STEAM Center makes sense to the council, and he would find it hard to imagine private funding could not be raised to help pay for the study.

Because of the opposing viewpoints from both the council and the public, a consensus was not reached to call this phase of the project to a vote during the council’s next meeting Oct. 23. Smith said this will more likely take place in November.

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