So my inbox gets a flurry of emails alerting me to a “press conference” in the Fellowship Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in DeKalb.
Getting invited by a county board member to a press conference at a church to discuss City of DeKalb and NIU affairs feels all communiversityish. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Someone anonymously mailed an envelope with unsigned documents marked confidential to Misty Haji-Sheikh (County Board District 7) that outline in great detail the formation of a partnership, College Town Partners, to redevelop the John Street/College Avenue neighborhood in the flood prone area east of the Kishwaukee River.
The unsigned documents listed as partners, Castle Bank (First National Nebraska Community Development Corporation), First State Bank, Northern Illinois University, City of DeKalb, and Stephen P. Irving (Irving Construction).
Initial investments totaling $1.35 million was projected from each partner as: Castle Bank – $500,000, First State Bank – $250,000, NIU – $250,000, City of DeKalb – $250,000 and Steve Irving – $100,000.
The capital raised was first to fund the purchase of property near NIU’s campus that would initially be rented to low to moderate-income individuals, including students. Also implementation of multiple phases to the project including flood mitigation work, infrastructure improvements, housing stabilization, and new business creation near the NIU’s campus.
But the documents are unsigned. According to Paul Palian, Director of Media Relations, the Memorandum of Understanding for the partnership was produced by a third party. The Daily Chronicle reports that third party to be Castle Bank.
NIU has declined its membership into the partnership. Mayor John Rey said the partnership was never brought before the city council. The City of DeKalb couldn’t be a part of any such partnership, according to Mayor Rey, because it could not be an investor in a project that receives TIF funding.
That would make the documents moot then. If not for TIF. If not for trust.
Misty Haji-Shiek read a prepared statement at the Fellowship Hall press conference. She made sure that the media in attendance heard that Preserve Our Neighborhood members did not feel there were any bad guys. But she said the existence of the documents shows clear intent and her group wanted to reach out and be a part of the process.
Preserve Our Neighborhood consists of concerned homeowners and landlords in what is commonly referred to as the Ellwood Historic District. According to Haji-Sheikh they would like access to TIF funds and other grants to help make their neighborhood the crown jewel of DeKalb. Their property values could be impacted either way with any such redevelopment and they don’t want those new tram buses driving through their streets on the way to Downtown DeKalb, heart of the DeKalb City Center plans. So they would like to have two members get seats on any decision making committee.
This is the kind of stuff that turns Communiversity into a four letter word:
A tenured professor at NIU whose name shall remain redacted, at least until after the City of DeKalb releases the full non-redacted EPI financial report, approached me after the Fellowship Hall press conference. He assured me that “King Baker” was going to have to come down from his mountain to talk to his group because their neighborhood really was DeKalb’s crown jewel and besides they were all members of the same political party and their party were the ones friendliest to NIU.
On their side of the Kishwaukee River he had to tow the line in NIU business, even report things that were confidential to his bosses. But on his side of the Kish they couldn’t touch him well because he was tenured.
Note to organizers. Don’t call a press conference and then approach a member of the media to tell secrets. Also don’t ask for TIF funds to make your neighborhood more of the crown jewel it is while the old Wurlitzer building is collapsing. And don’t support a project that calls for even more TIF investment into City Hall, the Library, the Egyptian Theatre and the Ellwood House if you won’t accept any development that connects your neighborhood.
The John Street neighborhood of mostly renter residents never consulted is indeed historic. It lives in the infamy of clumsy deals that fall flat on their face because the powers that be just won’t be open and honest. When hiding behind closed curtains those whose ox won’t be gored have a way of having someone else pay for their vision, their crown jewel or return investment.
Guess what? On their side of the Kishwaukee River NIU is attempting some bold initiative. They’ve got to get bold or they will be swallowed whole by the realities of a changing world. Now what would that do to property values in DeKalb County?
The way to rebuild trust, NIU and DeKalb is total transparency. Take away the whispers and the challenges are met with more ideas and opportunities.
Stay with the cloaked status quo and we’ll continue to have projects like across Lincoln Highway from John Street. You know, NB&T Square, the ShoDeen redevelopment project that took a neighborhood and deliberately blighted it to make it more TIF eligible. Makes me wonder if there are any MOU’s floating out there on that one.
The most embarrassing thing about this is DeKalb is a college town. It hosts a university well known for its public administration department and a center for government studies that consults a lot of local governmental units in northern Illinois and surrounds. DeKalb should be NIU’s crown jewel of local governments, you think?
At his special town hall Mayor Rey stated that the DeKalb City Center Project Management Team has met twice and that the agendas and meeting minutes are available to anyone who requests them. Haji-Sheikh said her group has asked for and still hasn’t received them. Lynn Fazekas has scoured the City of DeKalb’s award winning transparency website to no avail. Now she has filed a FOIA request for them.
I’m filing a FOIA with Jesse White’s office for the names and documents registered by local attorney Keith Foster for the organization College Town Partners, NFP incorporated Dec. 18, 2013. I’d file a FOIA for closed session meeting minutes related to College Town Partners or any other partnership the City of DeKalb discussed but standard operating procedure for the required semi-annual review of closed session meetings means no minutes are ever released as public documents. Their choice. They learned it from the library.
Does anyone honestly believe the city council has not discussed this in closed session? More than anyone involved the Mayor and city council need to step up and not allow DeKalb to be led by the whisperers.