DeKALB – It’s been a year of changing leadership at the city of DeKalb, a time when Northern Illinois University also welcomed its first female president, and now the two entities are focused on economic development and student recruitment and retention to move the city forward.
“The city is being transformed because our city leaders and members of our local business community are working together to implement a bold, shared vision for DeKalb,” NIU President Lisa Freeman said.
Mayor Jerry Smith said the city and university are “joined at the proverbial hip,” as he and Freeman gave their joint address at the 10th annual State of the City breakfast Tuesday hosted by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce at Faranda’s Banquet & Conference Center. He talked about the changes to management and the City Council over the past year, and said he plans to interview six applicants to fill the open 4th Ward aldermanic seat left vacant by Patrick Fagan’s September resignation because he moved out of the ward.
“This city lacked sound, permanent management leadership since early 2018,” Smith said, referring to City Manager Bill Nicklas, who came on board Jan. 1 after four other people had filled the role in less than a year.
The council looks significantly different than at this time last year, Smith noted, with three new aldermen who came on board in April. Smith addressed the city clerk controversy, which he called a “time-consuming distraction.” He also expressed excitement at “the earth-moving scenario” taking place in the ChicagoWest business park, with an international data center and food distribution company eyeing the site, which could bring in more than 1,200 jobs.
The link between NIU and DeKalb was also highlighted.
“NIU is here in DeKalb because DeKalb citizens 125 years ago fought to get it located here,” Freeman said. “To thrive, we must continue to work together, to move forward together, to understand and capitalize on the opportunities that will define our shared future and ensure our continued prosperity.”
As the city’s largest employer, NIU holds a substantial economic footprint in the city, and enrollment was a topic pointed out by both Smith and Freeman.
Both NIU and Kishwaukee College posted lower-than-normal fall enrollment numbers this year. Illinois has become one of the leading exporters of college-bound high school students to other states, and a March report by the Illinois Board of Higher Education found that about half of Illinois high school graduates leave to attend out-of-state colleges and universities.
Freeman said new digital marketing efforts such as chat bots, email campaigns and online applications are being unveiled to try and grab younger generations’ attention as early as middle school.
“It’s not just about hits on the website, it’s about meeting students where they are with digital marketing,” Freeman said.
Smith said ongoing downtown redevelopment also helps DeKalb look appealing to young professionals.
With the impending move of City Hall from the DeKalb Municipal Building, 200 S. Fourth St., to a former downtown bank known as the Nehring Building, 164 E. Lincoln Highway, the city plans to put the whole block of Fourth Street, from Grove to Franklin Streets on the market.
“We all dream, and I haven’t even shared this with our city manager, but what a wonderful spot I would think for a developer to come in and perhaps do some higher-end condos where some young professionals might live,” Smith said, of the soon-to-be-vacant municipal building.