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Local Column

Olson: Mayor Jerry Smith says DeKalb must reinvent itself

Eric Olson
Eric Olson

Mayor Jerry Smith wants to reinvent and revitalize the city of DeKalb.

I’ve heard Smith speak before about the state of DeKalb, but his speech Thursday to the area’s newest Rotary Club, the Rotary Satellite Club of Sycamore – Oak Crest Area, had a bit of a new twist.

Smith, who attended the meeting with his wife, Ging, was the speaker at the Oak Crest Rotary’s inaugural meeting. I had the honor of being one of the guests, along with Rotary District 6420 Gov. Steve Kuhn; Sycamore Mayor Curt Lang; his wife, Karen; and many other representatives from DeKalb- and Sycamore-area businesses.

The new club is an affiliate of the Rotary Club of Sycamore, which Eric Jones leads as president.

Smith’s speeches are engaging and at times folksy, marked by a familiarity with the area he’s acquired after spending more than 50 years living here. About a year into his first term as mayor, Smith seems determined to reverse areas of decline, better serve the city’s troubled sections and find ways to improve community relations.

A key theme was revitalizing and “reinventing” the city.

Building code compliance is a key focus at the moment, Smith told the Rotarians.

“We have many buildings, frankly, that are not safe, and we need to do something about this,” he said.

That issue came to the fore in the past week with the condemnation of downtown buildings and forced closure of three businesses, Lord Stanley’s, World Famous Pizza and Common Grounds coffee shop. World Famous and Lord Stanley’s reopened Tuesday, but Common Grounds now is planning to leave its still-condemned space.

Communication, which was found to be lacking in the recent condemnation episode, is another critical area to address, Smith said.

“We need to let our citizens in DeKalb know what’s happening at City Hall,” Smith said. “We need to address each and every citizen inquiry, each and every citizen complaint, and we need to do it in a way where we celebrate our successes and acknowledge our shortcomings.”

The $1.7 million the city will spend on road maintenance this year is not nearly enough – Smith said the city should spend about
$5 million. But there’s no quick fix for the problem, he said.

Although crime is a concern in the Annie Glidden North neighborhood – what they used to call the “northwest quadrant” of DeKalb – one issue that gets less attention is that it is a “food desert” where a couple of convenience stores provide the primary access to fresh food.  

“We’re going to address that,” Smith told the group.

There were a number of other issues that Smith raised – plans for industrial development in the city and work with the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp. on a possible research and technology park on the city’s west side that could be managed by Northern Illinois University.

Smith pointed out that the DeKalb Municipal Complex at 200 S. Fourth St. was built
50 years ago – I’d expect a push in the coming years to replace or extensively renovate it.

Although NIU always will be an integral part of DeKalb’s economy and identity, its enrollment has shrunk, and the city has felt the effects, Smith said.

The next step is to adapt, he said.

“The only constant in life is change,” Smith said. “So we’ve got to do the same thing as we more or less … reinvent the community of DeKalb.”

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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