***Update 8/12*** Added city manager Anne Marie Gaura and fixed clarity issues.
As our city council prepares to discuss a revitalization plan proposal for the Annie Glidden North (AGN) section of DeKalb, we should be aware of the possibility of a “done deal” already worked out by NIU and private interests, promoted by city staff who are ready to sell it hard. As I’ve already explained:
Emails obtained from NIU via Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that in spring of 2014, then-NIU vice president Bill Nicklas met at Campus Cinema with Chuck Hanlon, principal urban planner with Wills Burke Kelsey Associates, and arranged for Hanlon to create “a proposal for us that looks at the commercial strip along Hillcrest and Blackhawk, as well as a wider area in all directions to envision a different neighborhood.”
A hypothesis that the city has already secretly bought into a plan certainly fits with its top-down approach in the matter so far, and would help explain the exclusion of DeKalb Park District and other interested public bodies from discussions of the proposal.
Anyway, there are a lot more of these emails. Coming mostly from the account of then-NIU vice president Bill Nicklas, they trace growing involvement of Nicklas and other public officials in private redevelopment and city rezoning issues from late 2012 through much of 2014.
This business involved “Neighborhood 3” of the three neighborhoods identified collectively as Annie Glidden North (AGN), so our purpose is to look not only at how city players have operated generally, but also at how events in the past might be driving today’s behavior.
Heads up: This post is longer than most, and I’ve placed an album on Facebook containing about two dozen of the emails in a timeline that contains even more details. It’s kind of a project to read all of it, is what I’m saying.
Part of DeKalb 2020 was public. You may have heard the name “DeKalb 2020” during summer/fall of 2013, when members of neighborhoods in the northern part of DeKalb’s Fifth Ward were invited to contribute to a redevelopment concept plan of that name. However, you probably don’t know that DeKalb 2020, by that time, also referred to a year-old corporation, and to a group of private business people and public officials who discussed their intentions to buy residential real estate in the neighborhood just east of the NIU campus for the purpose of mixed-use redevelopment.
While the emails don’t explicitly name founders, they do suggest local banker Tim Struthers led the group, because he hosted meetings at his place of business, invited others to participate in discussions, and set or relayed goals and deadlines. Struthers works as president of Illinois marketing at First National Bank, sits on the board of the Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District (formerly DeKalb Sanitary District) and in 2015 was appointed to the NIU Board of Trustees.
Other early and/or continual participants were Nicklas, DeKalb city manager Mark Biernacki, and Roger Hopkins, who was DeKalb’s economic development consultant at the time. Developer Steve Irving also played important roles, by creating a corporation to handle the group’s preliminary expenses and contracting with an engineering firm, though he doesn’t seem to have been included in many day-to-day communications.
The fall of 2012 found the group first discussing a possible “quiet redevelopment” project just east of the NIU campus they called the College-John (later John-Harrison) neighborhood. With Hopkins’ help, the group tracked sales and foreclosures in the neighborhood.
Hopkins also contributed a prospectus of the same name. The “DeKalb 2020 Prospectus” expressed interest in “bringing together the resources of the city, the university, and the private sector” for the sake of the collaborative spirit of Communiversity and a river walk, among other things.
The prospectus was never formally approved by City of DeKalb, so it remains technically just a “draft” to this day. Nevertheless, group members began executing the “next steps” recommendations in it; for example, Biernacki contracted for a “quiet” feasibility study of a hotel and conference center that “quietly” cost the city $12,000 plus expenses.
City Center Plan
Much of 2013 saw an acceleration of both public and secret activity in DeKalb, especially following the appointment of Doug Baker as NIU president and John Rey’s election as mayor in the spring of that year.
Following the election, one of Rey’s first projects was to shepherd the City Center Plan through council. City Center, approved in early July, was an update to DeKalb’s Comprehensive Plan that had a focus of uniting city and campus visually and physically. Thanks to the careful selection of a steering committee, which included several DeKalb 2020 participants, City Center also bestowed blessings retroactively on DeKalb 2020 activities — such as the pursuit of the hotel and conference center that Biernacki had already initiated.
Later in the year, Irving of DeKalb 2020, LLC, contracted for services related to a flood mitigation analysis for the area of interest, and Struthers passed on a statement to the city to pay the company an arbitrary share of $10,000 to help cover the costs.
In December, the 2020 group created another corporation called College Town Partners.
College Town Partners and the Master Plan
The DeKalb 2020 group wanted to create an organization that would attract private investors and public money to redevelop John-Harrison, and were granted encouragement when NIU then-President Doug Baker pledged $250,000 from NIU to become a “sustaining partner” in College Town Partners the day after it was incorporated in December 2013.
You may recall activity under Baker’s watch, such as the expensive consultant-friends he hired, and the “Bold Futures” and “Master Plan Thesis” events and planning.
Some of these plans ended up straying off campus, and here’s the back story on that.
Struthers and Nicklas had recruited into DeKalb 2020’s redevelopment project the venerable Doug Roberts and Tom Matya, who are president and vice president, respectively, of ZEA Mays Holdings. Matya, along with Nicklas and Struthers, had agreed to serve as College Town Partners’ first board.
The emails indicate Roberts was actually lukewarm on the John-Harrison scheme as it stood, but apparently impressed enough by Baker to donate up to $100,000 to engage the services of a “first-class community planner” to come to the university. This ended up being Jim Heid of Urban Green, who was a friend of a friend of Baker’s, but also someone who had garnered credibility for his work on a public-private redevelopment partnership at Ohio State University.
Heid, who was actually contracted by Mike Malone of the NIU Foundation to hide where the money came from, recommended NIU’s involvement in “fixing the edges” of campus, including surrounding neighborhoods such as the DeKalb 2020 target of John-Harrison, Ellwood Historic Neighborhood, University Village, and Hillcrest/West Hillcrest/Northwest Hillcrest. Most of the recommendations involved redevelopment, but Heid also recommended measures for monitoring and intervening in the upcoming sale of University Village.
The records show NIU took the recommendations seriously, for example by assigning Jennifer Groce, a director of outreach for NIU, to provide “support services” for the Hillcrest redevelopment proposal and for the University Village intervention.
Nicklas and the ZEA Mays folks next turned their attention to redevelopment along Hillcrest and beyond, as described at the beginning of this post.
A donation of $17,700 — this time run through the DeKalb County Community Foundation — funded a design proposal for a piece of Annie Glidden North along Hillcrest, and Jennifer Groce worked out costs for a “resident inventory” and provided other services that supported design efforts. This proposal led to a draft of an actual redevelopment proposal.
A second draft of the proposal was circulated among NIU and city officials as an email attachment. The email itself stated Matya was asking for City of DeKalb to “kick in” for further work, and that an expenditure of $18,000 was agreed upon as DeKalb’s contribution.
Unfortunately, communications apparently went underground following the public exposure of College Town Partners in late May. The email trail in these matters stops in mid-2014, and requesters, including myself, have been unable to obtain copies of the proposals.
Current DeKalb city manager Anne Marie Gaura arrived in early 2014. She was involved in email exchanges at the time, so she knows something about the Hillcrest proposal.
This part is totally my opinion, but you can check my hypothesis against how the Annie Glidden North deal plays out.
1. Private interests such as banks and developers are looking to put together profitable projects that are, at least in part, publicly financed. That’s what DeKalb 2020 and College Town Partners were all about. Public financing is easy money that reduces risks of default to almost nil, and the bankers probably still get participation trophies for community reinvestment when regulators come around to check.
2. NIU is an instigator and enabler on behalf of private interests, as was demonstrated by their participation in DeKalb 2020, College Town Partners, the University Village sale and rezoning, and the initiation of a redevelopment proposal by a whiz-bang consultant — a proposal now conveniently misplaced — for the very area DeKalb is looking at revitalizing.
3. City of DeKalb is mostly a spectator in its own business, until it’s time to become salespeople. Unfortunately it’s a spectator and sales staff with our checkbook. That checkbook is getting thinner, because of state cuts and the expiring TIF districts, and whatever else makes up its financial house of cards.
What this adds up to is a desire for a big fat new TIF district, which would make all three partners happy. TIF districts are wildly unpopular in this town because of rampant abuse, so the strategy will be to dominate and manipulate some key people, and offer goodies to others, in order to force support or at least a consensus that TIF is the only hope.
Let me make it perfectly clear that I support revitalization of our neighborhoods, and AGN is one area that could use a lot of it. What I don’t like are secret plans, abuse of spending authority, and tricks that tend to suppress voices in our community. In other words, the issue is not what they want to do, it’s more about how they’re going about it. That’s the problem 90% of the time in city matters.
Again, the email timeline is here.
Edgar County Watchdogs: NIU’s newest Trustee, Tim Struthers, may have conflicts
Edgar County Watchdogs: NIU and College Town Partners — Part 2