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Local Column

Olson: With enrollment at NIU falling, DeKalb County needs more employers

Chicagoland-based Krusinksi Construction Company, who owns the ChicagoWest land located south of Interstate 88 along Gurler Road and Route 23, announced site development and mass grading (ground work to remove slopes or hills to better prepare for buildings) has begun on the 1,000-acre site.
Chicagoland-based Krusinksi Construction Company, who owns the ChicagoWest land located south of Interstate 88 along Gurler Road and Route 23, announced site development and mass grading (ground work to remove slopes or hills to better prepare for buildings) has begun on the 1,000-acre site.

Much of DeKalb County, and particularly the communities of DeKalb and Sycamore, is an area in transition. For decades, the biggest business in town was Northern Illinois University.

The school remains the area’s No. 1 employer, with more than 7,500 total workers counting part-time, full-time and student employees. But it’s clear that the county needs to diversify and grow by adding employers and jobs.

Enrollment at NIU is shrinking. In the
11 years from 2008 to ’18, fall enrollment at NIU has dropped 30%, from 24,397 to 17,169. Enrollment as of the 10th day of fall classes at NIU is expected to be released next week. If I had to bet, I’d guess it will be down again, although hopefully not the 5% year-over-year declines of the previous three years.

There have been setbacks at NIU – including the removal of a president for mismanagement – but there have also been headwinds beyond their control. The two years without a state budget was a killer.

Even with more certainty about funding and leadership, there’s probably no bringing enrollment back to the high-water mark – at least, not in the near- to medium-term. Most NIU students come from Chicago and the suburbs, and Illinois is expected to have fewer high-school graduates for the next 15 years. Many Illinois students already opt to go to college in other states, and jobs are plentiful right now.

University President Lisa Freeman’s plan to increase enrollment to 18,000 by 2023 doesn’t rely solely on bringing more students to DeKalb, either – increasing the number of students who take online classes is a component of that plan, too.

Online students don’t need housing or a meal plan. They don’t necessarily have to visit the campus much, if at all, and the people who teach them may not, either. That means less money spent here at gas stations and restaurants, and less sales-tax revenue for local governments.

NIU remains a big university, and its students and employees and the whole spirit of the place are a big part of our community identity.

We’re far enough from Chicago that when I travel, I don’t really tell people that’s where I live any more. I tell them DeKalb or Sycamore – and when they look kind of puzzled, I’ll say, “Have you heard of Northern Illinois University?” (The Orange Bowl appearance after the 2012 season really helped raise public awareness, I think.)

But even as we remain proud to be the Home of the Huskies, our community has to diversify and grow. That’s why it’s encouraging to see that site work has begun on 1,000 acres of property near Gurler Road and Route 23 on the south side of DeKalb that could be a landing spot for a couple of potential employers. The property is called the “ChicagoWest Business Center,” and DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas told reporter Kelsey Rettke this week that the companies being targeted are “good-sized prospects.”

DeKalb County should be an attractive landing spot for companies, particularly those that want easy access to Interstate and rail transport, as well as agricultural resources and a plentiful, educated area workforce (thanks to NIU for that.)

Landing a couple of new businesses that would increase property values and employ people who might decide to join our community would be a big win.

DeKalb County residents will not see less of a property tax burden or a better quality of life through more taxes or legal marijuana.

What we need is more employers and more jobs.

• 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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