DeKalb's New Mayor Will Prioritize NIU, Economic Development
Jerry Smith was elected Mayor of DeKalb earlier this month and takes office May 8. He discusses his plans for the city in this week's Friday Forum.
Three candidates challenged incumbent John Rey in DeKalb’s mayoral race this spring: Smith, Misty Haji-Sheikh, and Michael Embrey. Although Smith originally hails from Dixon, he was motivated to run by his deep connections to DeKalb.
“I’ve been here now for 56 years, after having come as a student at Northern Illinois in 1961," he said, "and I felt this was a way I could give back to this community.”
After graduating in 1966 with a bachelor’s in journalism, Smith went to work at a local publishing company, Castle-PrinTech. He was promoted to company president in 1983 and said this experience led him to expand into the public sector.
“I was able to have a career, 30 years in business -- 30 years in Castle-PrinTech -- 10 years with the DeKalb County Community Foundation," Smith explained. "In both of those scenarios, I was able to grow professionally."
Though currently retired, Smith also served on several public boards, including the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation, Kishwaukee Hospital, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
In candidate forums, Smith said the DeKalb City Council and bureaucracy generally have worked well together. However, he noted that sometimes there hasn’t been enough time for aldermen to fully address material provided by staff. To prevent these situations from happening again, Smith said he’s going for a more inclusive management style:
“I am not going to simply say, 'This is what we need to do.' I’m going to get people around a table and say, 'You know, this may not be working,' or 'Hey, this is working fine. Why don’t we take this idea and move it over here.' It’s just a management style that will be open to new ideas, that will be open to participation by all elements.”
Now that he’s been elected, Smith said one of his top priorities is continuing the “partnership” between Northern Illinois University and the City of DeKalb. The mayor-elect says that he’s personally acquainted with three new members of the university's Board of Trustees, and that NIU President Doug Baker was one of the first people to contact him after his electoral victory. Smith stressed that this relationship is even more important in light of NIU’s financial crunch, both from diminishing enrollment and reduced state aid due to the lack of a budget.
"Without that, we have some serious problems,” he said. “What happens at Northern Illinois University has a direct impact on the economic stability of DeKalb and this community in this state.”
Beyond the city-university relationship, Smith’s primary focus for DeKalb is economic development. On the retail front, there is general concern over downtown redevelopment, but Smith is optimistic about two projects in particular.
“The Pappas Cornerstone project at the corner of 1st and Lincoln Highway is going to be the catalyst for a lot of good things in DeKalb," he said. "Sundog IT has announced its intention to rehab the old Moxie property.”
Cornerstone is the former home of Otto’s Night Club. Developer John Pappas plans to replace it with a new building containing businesses on the lower level and luxury apartments on the floors above. Smith said this type of development reflects new retail trends.
“Shopping patterns over the past decades have changed to where folks like to go to shopping centers and shopping areas, where parking perhaps is easier, where there are some of the big-box 'anchors' if you will, in our community," he said, "so we need a mix of all of that.”
As for Moxie, Sundog plans to move in after renovating the building. The city is providing $400,000 in tax increment financing. Smith said he believes these two projects can act as a catalyst for further development along Lincoln Highway. In particular, he hopes this can extend to the land between 1st Street and the NIU lagoon near Castle Drive.
Smith also supports the DeKalb Area Arts Council’s plan to create an arts corridor from the NIU campus to the eastern edge of DeKalb. He says it would incorporate city landmarks such as the Egyptian and Stagecoach theaters.
“Engaging that idea, I think, is something that is going to improve the scenario between students and Northern Illinois and downtown DeKalb," Smith said.
Outside of downtown development, Smith also said he wants to create jobs through attracting larger companies. Some firms, such as Monsanto, have left DeKalb; but Smith said the city offers conditions favorable to attracting similar businesses.
“They’re looking for transportation accessibility. They’re looking for education opportunities. They’re looking for quality of life, they’re looking for a quality of schools, and all those things I think DeKalb, Illinois, has,” he said.
Although 3M vacated its buildings along Peace Road, Smith points to the company’s success south of town and adds that there are other opportunities for other companies to move in.
“We have been very successful at developing a very attractive property on the southeast side of our community," he said. "That’s Park 88. We also have some plots of land that we could develop, working with the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation and working with the Enterprise Zone which was recently established in DeKalb County.”
Smith wants to have an active role at the EDC when it negotiates with businesses and, while he claims that a variety of parties are interested, he was hesitant to elaborate.
“There are many sensitive confidentiality issues that are brought to bear," he said. "Transparency on one hand is good. Letting a cat out of a bag, if you will, as it relates to economic development and attraction of businesses is a line that I think we have to continue to walk, and we have to walk gingerly.”
Smith will be sworn in May 8. While somewhat ambivalent about stepping out of retirement, he’s grateful for the electorate’s support.
“I asked to be your mayor. I asked for your votes. You responded, and responded in a very heartwarming way to me," he said, "so I want to do the best job I can moving forward.”
Filings with the Illinois Board of Elections show Jerry Smith had higher campaign expenditures than his rivals. He spent almost $20,000, while incumbent John Rey spent about $10,000, and Misty Haji-Sheikh spent around $8,700. No public filings are available for Michael Embry.
The Barb City Action Committee spent more than $3,000 on radio advertising and signs for Smith's campaign, according to Daily Chronicle reports. The mayor-elect said he received the group's endorsement during the race. However, he insists the funds were spent by the committee directly, and did not go into his campaign coffers.