DeKALB – It was all hands on deck Monday as DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith kicked off the first session of the City Council for 2020 by delivering his State of the City address, highlighting economic development and public safety in a meeting full of debate regarding DeKalb’s south side, marijuana and liquor sales, and downtown development ahead of an expected City Hall move.
Smith heralded the city’s “momentum” in 2019.
“I’m darn proud if you call me DeKalb’s No. 1 cheerleader,” Smith said. “It’s a great experience being your mayor.”
Smith credited City Manager Bill Nicklas’ leadership in 2019 with right-sizing DeKalb’s government through staffing cuts, number crunching for a balanced fiscal 2020 budget, continuing economic development efforts in the Central Business District through tax increment financing projects, and helping market the city’s south side for international employers that could bring significant jobs and tax-base growth.
While acknowledging progress in the city over the past year, Smith said the city also should “own up to its shortcomings” in 2020, and reiterated his commitment to economic development and public safety.
“We’re certainly not where we need to be on the public safety front,” Smith said. “But we’re making good progress. A major roadblock to this progress has been difficulties dealing with the city’s largest landlord.”
For months the city has been embroiled in legal disputes with Evanston-based Hunter Properties LLC. Through subsidiaries, it owns about 1,000 rental units in DeKalb, city officials have said, which is more than any other company. Those include two buildings where tenants were forced from their homes after July fires police believe were set intentionally that displaced about 200 people at the Ridgebrook Apartment complex at 808 Ridge Drive.
Smith gave an update on the condemnation of that building, and said he expects it could be reopened soon.
“I’m heartened by Hunter Properties’ new willingness to work with our city staff to address many of the issues in housing,” Smith said.
When it came to future plans for the year, Smith said DeKalb’s participation in the state’s now legal recreational marijuana could come sooner rather than later.
“My best bet for a dispensary opening in DeKalb is early summer,” he said.
Chicago-area based BQ Enterprises has already been approved for a medical marijuana license, and owners are now pursuing a recreational license at the state level.
Cameron Dye, owner of Aromas Hookah Bar, 811 W. Lincoln Highway – who was in attendance to advocate for a bring-your-own-beer liquor license for his hookah bar – said in an interview after the meeting that he is also interested in pursing a recreational dispensary license in DeKalb that would operate independently from his hookah business.
Throughout his address, Smith referenced the city’s partners, such as the DeKalb Park District – which he thanked for deciding to keep River Heights and Buena Vista golf courses open for another season after months of deliberation over financial woes – and Northern Illinois University for being “joined at the proverbial hip” on issues such as education, housing and transportation.
As has been the case since a May 2019 announcement that City Hall would move from the DeKalb Municipal Building to a former bank downtown known as the Nehring building, downtown revitalization was a key component to Smith’s goals for 2020.
“At the center of all this is the core of our community: our downtown,” Smith said.
The council deliberated after Smith’s address on whether to approve TIF funds to finance a portion of the project headed by the Balli family for 206 E. Lincoln Highway, formerly Eduardo’s Mexican Restaurant, and decided to vote on the funds at a later date.
As Nicklas looks to move forward with the Nehring move, the council also voted to approve funding allocations for costs associated with the move, which city staff have said is another way to invigorate downtown foot traffic. In turn, they’ll put the whole block that the municipal building sits on up for sale.
“Our move will be a viable and visible sign that your government believes in its downtown,” Smith said. “A downtown that will regain prominence in vitality, in activity, in entertainment, in becoming a destination for residents and visitors alike.”