DeKALB – Standing in the lobby of the former First National Bank building downtown Tuesday morning, City Manager Bill Nicklas pointed to the marble floors of the Nehring building and said, “You can’t do better than that.”
Nicklas was given a green light by the City Council on Monday to move forward with renovations at 164 E. Lincoln Highway, built in 1892, which soon will be the home to the city’s government. Nicklas said he hopes to be in the building by March as he toured the space while crews began work on interior renovations. The marble flooring will remain, although some carpeted areas will be redone.
“We tore up a lot of the old carpet and found lots of nice surprises,” Nicklas said, and then pointed to the fortified door of one of the bank vaults. “I just love this door, so we’re going to make that look presentable.”
It’s one thing to pay homage to the building’s rich 127-year history, and another to ensure it’s functional and modern enough to fit government offices in 2020, Nicklas said. Crews will work next two months to ensure bathrooms and entrances are updated while maintaining the historic structure of the space. Although council already had approved allocating $260,000 from the city’s Capital Fund with the passage of its fiscal 2020 budget, not all members are in support of the move, even after the $1 sale of the building was finalized with the former owner, the DeKalb Park District, on Dec. 27.
Nicklas said Monday the move is little cost when compared with needed updates to the current municipal building the city can’t afford. The current city hall houses a 30-person staff when it was meant to hold three times that many.
First Ward Alderwoman Carolyn Morris said in an interview after the council meeting Monday that she does not support the move because she’s concerned it’s a temporary solution to what could be a longer problem.
“I have decided I am against the move because it just doesn’t seem like a solid solution,” Morris said.
She cited parking, abandoning the gun range used by the DeKalb Police Department in the DeKalb Municipal Building, 200 S. Fourth St., and having to hold council meetings in the Yusunas room in the basement of the DeKalb Public Library as reasons why. Morris said she’s worried that in a few years, city staff will determine the Nehring building is too small for their operation.
The library’s Yusunas room will undergo a $60,000 makeover to install a broadcast center so council meetings can be televised.
Public parking lots surrounding the Nehring building offers three-hour-and-15-minute parking options, with accessible entrances (and two handicap parking spaces along Second Street), as well as an elevator on the first floor accessible by the Second Street entrance.
“We talked about this six months ago,” Nicklas said in response to Morris. “We’re not here tonight to re-argue the move. It cost us a dollar to buy the Nehring building. Why would we want to upsize the city government when our population is falling? What can we afford? We can’t tax people anymore.”
Fifth Ward Alderman Scott McAdams called for a voice vote on the moving expenditures even though the money already was approved by council. McAdams and Morris voted nay, while everyone else was in support.
When approached after the meeting, McAdams said he does support the move and that his vote was more symbolic because of the feedback he’s received from residents on Facebook.
“When I posted on my page, there was an outpouring of emotional unhappiness,” McAdams said. “So I wanted to address that and acknowledge that it exists.”
In May 2019, Nicklas announced the move, which left former Nehring tenants, DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association, with a Dec. 31 deadline to vacate their spaces.
Council on Monday also approved DAAHA’s request for $1,000 from the city to assist with moving expenses for its museum collection.
The second-floor space that housed the organizations in the Nehring building is empty now, as crews work to repaint the walls and install new light fixtures. The hardwood floor will remain and offer offices for city staff, including the mayor.
In the ground-floor space once used by the chamber, Nicklas said there will be a “one-stop shop” for residents who wish to pay bills with the finance department and have access to permits and licensing with the building department.