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Top DeKalb County stories to watch for in 2019

Here are some narratives to keep an eye on as new year unfolds

City of DeKalb government issues dominated the headlines in late 2018 and will continue to warrant coverage in 2019, as many of those hurdles haven’t yet been cleared.

Right out of 2019’s chute, however, pushback against a shooting range for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office has become a hot-button topic. This upcoming week, one of the oldest cases in the county, the child pornography case against DeKalb pastor Corey Butler, will go to trial.

Here’s a rundown of what the Daily Chronicle staff expects to be some of the biggest local stories of 2019:

Residents oppose shooting range

DeKalb and Cortland residents are concerned about the proposed shooting range between the county landfill south of Cortland and Gurler Road. Farmers are concerned sounds of gunfire will spook livestock or that the county will eventually put limitations on when farmers can spread fertilizer because of the overwhelming smell.

If it’s built, the range will be a three-sided berm that will be used by DeKalb County law enforcement agencies and the county’s SWAT team. The special weapons and tactics team responded to nine incidents in 2018 alone, and state law requires officers have at least two rifle and shotgun qualification sessions each year. The issue likely will come up before the DeKalb County Law and Justice Committee at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 28.

Will Meijer build in Sycamore?

Sycamore first approved plans for a new Meijer big-box store and gas station in 2017. Last summer, the Planning Commission approved an updated permit for Meijer to build a new grocery store on vacant land northwest of the intersection of Peace Road and DeKalb Avenue. At the time, a company official said that construction was expected to begin in late spring of 2019. Will we finally see dirt moving at the site? If so, the new store could open in Sycamore by 2020.

DeKalb government changes

There could be a lot of new faces in DeKalb city government in 2019. The city begins the new year with Bill Nicklas taking over as its city manager. Nicklas, who was DeKalb’s city manager in the 1990s, said he plans to make a public report on operations at City Hall in January – and who knows what changes he will implement afterward. One decision he will make is who the city’s next fire chief should be. Jeff McMaster has been the interim chief since November, days after Fire Chief Eric Hicks announced his retirement.

Freeman’s first year

This is expected to be the first full year that Northern Illinois University will have a permanent leader since 2016. After serving as the university’s acting president since summer 2017, Lisa Freeman was hired as the institution’s president last fall with the support of campus and alumni groups and signed to a four-year contract. Freeman has talked about campus safety, forging local partnerships and attracting more private donors to fund scholarships for students. Can her administration stop or even reverse the enrollment decline at NIU?

Pritzker to bring change

J.B. Pritzker will take office Jan. 14 after unseating Gov. Bruce Rauner in an election in which he pledged to institute a graduated income tax, legalize recreational use of marijuana, create jobs and expand access to pre-kindergarten education. There’s also talk about a new capital plan to maintain Illinois roads and bridges that could lead to an increase in the state’s 19-cents-a-gallon motor fuel tax or other vehicle fees. With Democrats holding a supermajority in both the state House and Senate, Pritzker should be able to accomplish much of his agenda. Where will it lead?

Housing growth

DeKalb saw the first signs of life in its housing market in years last summer, when Fort Worth, Texas-based homebuilder D.R. Horton Homes announced it planned to build and sell houses in the city’s Devonaire Farms subdivision. Builders in DeKalb have approval to build in several subdivisions at different price points – but will homebuyers be there? Can Sycamore, which continues to lead the county in residential growth thanks to homebuilding activity in a few subdivisions around the city, continue its steady pace of growth in 2019?

DeKalb invests millions

The city has invested millions in projects in and around its downtown area through tax increment financing. As the Egyptian Theatre marks its 90th anniversary this year, work is expected to begin on a project to install air conditioning, renovate and expand bathrooms and expand concessions in the building. The city made the project possible with a $2.5 million grant of tax increment financing funds.

A boutique hotel planned for the one-time St. Mary’s Hospital building at 145 Fisk Ave. also received $2.5 million, and the city contributed $150,000 for renovations at Hometown Sports Bar and Grill, allowing for a live music venue among other upgrades.

Developer John Pappas’ two downtown projects also should progress this year, with a bar and restaurant expected to open in the 51-apartment Cornerstone DeKalb building near First Street and Lincoln Highway, and the Plaza DeKalb project on Lincoln Highway is expected to open with an additional 21 apartments and retail space, including a Mediterranean grocery, on the ground floor.

Another TIF district?

As one of the city’s two TIF districts has expired, a third district has been proposed. Although the city seemingly has embraced the demand for a forensic audit of its use of TIF funds over the years, 5th Ward Alderman Kate Noreiko expressed concern at the Dec. 18 meeting that taxing bodies will be “pretty skeptical” about working with the city in the future.

New history center

May will be a big month for local historians and history buffs. The grand opening of a new DeKalb County History Center building is set for May 11.

The opening of the new building, at the old Engh Farm property at 1730 N. Main St. in Sycamore, will be highlighted by a traveling Smithsonian exhibit called “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.” A companion exhibit featuring local stories also is planned. Last year, the Joiner History Room and Sycamore History Museum, two key curators of local history, joined forces to form the center, and the building project is being funded with private donations.

Important trials

It’s a case nearly four years, two defense lawyers and four trial postponements in the making. Since Corey Butler, a 38-year-old pastor of Jesus is the Way Christian Center in DeKalb, fired his initial lawyer, Tom Benno, in May 2017, and hired on Bob Motta, Chief Judge Robbin Stuckert repeatedly has urged all parties to have a sense of urgency in getting ready for trial.

Butler’s final jury status is slated for Jan. 31, and he’s expected to go to trial for charges of child pornography possession and dissemination the next week. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison.

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