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DeKalb Mayoral Candidates Take Part In Front Yard Forum

The two candidates for DeKalb mayor took part in a neighborhood forum Sunday. 

About a dozen Kensington Pointe residents gathered on a chilly day to hear from candidates Carolyn Morris and Cohen Barnes. They gathered on the front lawn of the Rev. Marty Marks, a pastor for Immanuel Lutheran Church. Marks said he personally knows both candidates and wanted to create an event that focused on commonalities. He said the results speak for themselves.

“I was happy for the people who were here," said Marks. "I was happy for the engagement. There were questions. Both candidates seemed to enjoy getting to know each other and even that’s just a net gain."

The sharpest difference between the two candidates is their area of emphasis. Cohen Barnes, who owns  Sundog IT, emphasized economic development as a way to expand DeKalb’s tax base. He noted the city’s success at attracting Facebook and Ferrara Candy Company, and cited the importance of attracting other large companies.

“This is a major investment," Cohen said, "some of the biggest investments in the state of Illinois are happening right now in DeKalb, and we’re not celebrating. We’re not talking about it. We are not sharing that story to as many people as possible. So the opportunity we have before us is to continue that momentum.”

Barnes’s opponent, Carolyn Morris, is the 1st Ward Alderman. She largely agreed with regards to improving the city’s tax base, and with the successes of Ferrara and Facebook. But she was also adamant about the need to raise neighborhood equity. This includes addressing social and racial inequalities, along with improvement to education. This, Morris says, will directly benefit DeKalb’s business appeal.

“Where we really have to be ratcheting up our strength is investing in our school district and investing in our children so that we have a community that is the best quality of life around," Morris said, "so it’s a no brainer when they decide where to live and where to buy their houses.”

Despite their different approaches, the candidates share common ground on several issues. One of the biggest is how to address the housing situation brought forth by Hunter Properties. Morris said she’s had a long time to formulate a plan to address the urban blight.

"There is $5.6 million worth of properties for sale right now in the 1st Ward and that is all by one owner, and that is 100 different units. The opportunity there too could be to have, one, a responsible landlord coming in and take care of those properties and do a really good job at it. Another alternative is trying to form a co-op."

Hunter-owned properties have been host to numerous code violations and alleged arson in recent years. Court records indicate Hunter alleges government officials have created an atmosphere of animosity which make its properties a target for crime.

The city continues to be actively engaged with Hunter Properties in the courtroom. But Barnes says another potential option is seeking out nonprofits with a particular focus.

“Blighted areas," he said, "people living in low-income, especially if they’re people of color, living in low income areas and being subjected to a company like Hunter Properties. What they do is they’ve got funding mechanisms in place where they come in and they actually purchase those particular properties and then they become responsible landlords and make sure the tenants they have, have good living conditions and affordable housing.”

Marks provided the majority of the forum’s questions, but it was also a chance for neighbors to query the candidates directly. One of these questions, which Marks jokingly described as “half-baked,” revealed another area of commonality between the candidates, a local cannabis dispensary. Morris described the current situation.

“So we have two locations," she said. "One is over by Peace Road. One is over by where the bookstore was by the Junction. Those are the two locations that have been approved by the city council. Our holdup, I believe, is state approval.”

Barnes said such a facility would be a net benefit.

"So that is a tax revenue stream that is available to us so absolutely we should go after that," Barnes said. "No different than having bars. No different than having video gambling, cause all of our neighbors are going to have something similar, so I would be for that as well."

The atmosphere remained jovial throughout the forum, and it eventually drew to a close late in the afternoon as the 40-degree temperatures began to catch up with the candidates and neighbors. For his part, Marks says commonality, including questions where candidates complimented each others’ accomplishments, kept it genial.

“I think we’re in good hands with whichever person gets elected," Marks said. "I think this is maybe the first step if lots of communities and people do things like this, we can really deal with some of the problems in our world where we say, 'Boy, things out there suck. We can make it better.'”

Early voting has already begun as Barnes and Morris head toward the April 6th consolidated election.