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Perhaps one of the more visible parts of the downtown DeKalb revitalization project can be viewed by standing at the intersection of North First and Locust streets and looking east down Locust.
The street used to be home to utility poles and wires that crisscrossed the skyline. As part of the revitalization project, the poles were removed, the utility lines were put underground and East Locust Street was repaved between First and Fourth streets. The result is an inviting streetscape.
It’s just a small example of the many benefits the revitalization project has brought to the downtown area of the city since work started in 2008. Other projects included lighting, landscaping work, murals, benches, bicycle racks, painting of buildings, brick work for the pedestrian walkways across streets, and a walkway where a building once stood at 231 E. Lincoln Highway that connects pedestrians from Lincoln Highway to the Frank Van Buer Plaza near Locust and Second streets, where the farmers market is held each summer.
The overall project cost about $10.8 million, shy of the originally estimated $12 million. Recently, the DeKalb City Council approved an allocation of about $890,000 of excess funds to the Egyptian Theatre for improvements such as new seating and air conditioning.
We’re not saying there weren’t some hurdles along the way, or that every project proposed was a success. But the end result? An effort that has clearly improved the atmosphere of the downtown area – that came in under budget and ahead of schedule.
Much of the success of the project is because of Re:New DeKalb, the nonprofit public-private partnership that was incorporated in 2007 with a goal of revitalizing the downtown DeKalb area through serving as advisers to the city, working to attract and maintain businesses and fundraising.
The end of the first phase coincides with the departure of the person who has overseen the organization since its inception: Jennifer Groce has resigned her position as the executive director of Re:New DeKalb to take a full-time research associate position at the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies.
We wish Groce well on her future endeavors. Shepherding a community improvement project from start to finish is no easy task. While she was the one who often received any praise for the project, she was also often the one who shouldered the brunt of any criticism.
Re:New now turns to finding a new leader, as well as moving on to a new phase. Re:New DeKalb President Frank Roberts said that phase 2 for the organization will focus on private redevelopment, attracting businesses and long-term strategic planning.
We hope they take their time and find a leader who sees DeKalb as something worthy of investing in, and has a passion for making dreams for a dynamic downtown corridor a reality.
Taking down utility lines or putting a fresh coat of paint on buildings is not a panacea for making a city’s downtown vibrant.
But first appearances do matter. Buildings with a lackluster appearance do not entice shoppers into stores or restaurants.
We hope the city of DeKalb – which provides the organization with about $45,000 annually – still sees Re:New as a worthy investment. Ditto for the private businesses and organizations that also give to Re:New.
In many ways, Re:New’s work has just begun.