DeKALB – When Mel Witmer opened O’Leary’s Ale House on June 14, 2004, in downtown DeKalb, the restaurant seated 400 people for dinner and served those customers on two floors. Just before Witmer closed the restaurant and moved to Nevada last month, he said business had declined by 50 percent since it opened 14 years ago.
Witmer said several factors probably contributed to that decline, including enrollment and employment at Northern Illinois University, both of which have decreased 27 percent since 2008. Fewer people to serve resulted in an oversaturated restaurant market, he said.
Going forward, Witmer said, he thinks local government needs to be more deliberate in what businesses it allows when addressing the decrease in population in a more saturated market.
“I think they get excited every time something new comes along, and that’s normal behavior,” Witmer said, “but I do think the city should intelligently evaluate what the new business is going to bring and what the new business is going to delete.”
Data from the university show that there are fewer students and employees there, and of the employees that remain, fewer are choosing to live in DeKalb County.
According to the 2017-18 NIU Data Book, there were more than 16,000 students enrolled last fall at the university’s main campus in DeKalb. There were more than 22,000 enrolled on campus in 2004 and 2008. The enrollment decline over the years is part of a trend among public universities statewide, many of which have seen enrollment shrink as a result of Illinois’ budget stalemate and financial woes and aggressive recruiting of students by institutions in other states.
The number of full-time university employees with DeKalb County addresses has dropped by about 970 people over the past decade, data show. Ten years ago, the university had 4,585 full-time faculty and staff, about 61 percent of whom lived in the county. About 55 percent of NIU’s 3,322 full-time faculty and staff currently live in DeKalb County, according to data from NIU sent in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Spending by students and staff was cited as the main contributor to DeKalb County’s economy in a report by NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, which pegged the university’s overall effect on DeKalb County’s economy at more than $400 million in fiscal 2010.
Despite the decline, the university remains a key part of the local economy. NIU is the county’s largest employer, according to the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp. A 2015 economic impact report from the Center for Governmental Studies, which covered 17 northern Illinois counties including DeKalb, estimated NIU’s economic impact in that geographic area at $900 million a year.
For some university employees, family circumstances necessitate living outside DeKalb County.
Aurora has the largest full-time NIU faculty and staff population outside of DeKalb County, with about 90 employees living there, data show.
Toni Van Laarhoven is one of them. A special and early education professor at NIU, she said she made her home in Aurora because it is midway between DeKalb and her husband’s place of employment.
Laarhoven said she grew up in Ottawa and thinks DeKalb has a similar vibe. She said she likes the DeKalb area and that she tries to visit local businesses, sometimes buying groceries at Schnuck’s on her way home.
“I think for most people it’s a matter of having spouses where one works somewhere and the other works elsewhere,” Laarhoven said.
Herb Rubin, a professor emeritus of sociology at NIU, started working at the university in 1970. He has been a DeKalb resident for 36 years and has been retired for 15 years. He said it seems there were a lot more NIU employees living in his neighborhood decades ago than there are now, and many who remain are older or retired.
Rubin said some people buy into negative news about DeKalb, while others, such as Laarhoven, have two working parents and need to live somewhere in between the two places of employment. Decades ago, when the university was growing rapidly, one spouse was more likely to follow the other and settle in the area.
“Basically, a lot of people are splitting the commute,” Rubin said.
Ayoti Simms, an adjunct instructor within the NIU English department, said she lived in DeKalb for two years while she was studying for her master’s degree in linguistics. She recently moved to Aurora, where she said she feels safer and enjoys easy access to public transportation to Chicago and a more vibrant social scene, she said.
“So there’s more accessibility to different things that DeKalb doesn’t have,” Simms said.
Rubin said young adults also happen to be drawn more to big-city activity, which DeKalb County doesn’t have.
“To me, that’s an advantage,” he said, “but that’s not an advantage if you’re 19 years old.”
Rubin said it also doesn’t help that news outlets constantly are highlighting crime that happens near the university, which deters students from coming to the area, and that there is not enough being done to highlight what’s good about the community. He said potential students also may have been deterred by the controversy surrounding past NIU presidents but that he is encouraged by how willing NIU President Lisa Freeman is to listen.
Basically, Rubin said, it comes down to the question of how to persuade NIU graduates to stay in the county after graduation and chase their dreams in the area.
“It’s one of those situations where I do not know, if I had all power, what I could actually do locally,” he said.