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New leadership, vision between DeKalb, NIU highlighted in State of the City

DEKALB – It’s been a year of changing leadership at the City of DeKalb, a time when Northern Illinois University also welcomed its first woman president, and now the two entities are focused on economic development and student recruitment and retention to bring the city forward.

“The city is being transformed because our city leaders and members of our local business community are working together to implement a bold, shared vision for DeKalb,” said NIU President Lisa Freeman.

Mayor Jerry Smith shook hands ceremoniously with Freeman and said the city and university are “joined at the proverbial hip,” as he and Freeman gave their joint address at the 10th annual State of the City breakfast hosted by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. He talked about the changes to management and the city council over the past year, and said he plans to interview six applicants to fill the vacant ward 4 alderman position left by Patrick Fagan, who resigned in September after he moved out of the ward.

“This city lacked sound, permanent management leadership since early 2018,” Smith said, referring to City Manager Bill Nicklas, who came on board Jan. 1 after four other people filled the role in less than a year.

The council looks significantly different than this time last year, Smith said, with three new aldermen who came on board in April. Smith also hinted at the city clerk controversy, calling it a “time-consuming distraction. He also expressed excitement at “the earth-moving scenario” taking place in the ChicagoWest business park, with an international data center and food distribution company eyeing the site, which could bring in more than 1,200 jobs.

The link between NIU and DeKalb was also highlighted.

“NIU is here in DeKalb because DeKalb citizens 125 years ago fought to get it located here,” Freeman said. “To thrive, we must continue to work together, to move forward together, to understand and capitalize on the opportunities that will define our shared future and ensure our continued prosperity.”

As the city’s largest employer, NIU holds a substantial economic footprint in the city, and enrollment was a topic highlighted by both Smith and Freeman.

Both NIU and Kishwaukee College posted lower-than-normal fall enrollment numbers this year. Illinois has become one of the leading exporters of college-bound high school students to other states; a March report by the Illinois Board of Higher Education that found about half of Illinois high school graduates leave to attend out-of-state colleges and universities.

Freeman said new digital marketing efforts like chat bots, email campaigns and online applications are being unveiled to try and grab younger generations’ attention as early as middle school.

“It’s not just about hits on the website, it’s about meeting students where they are with digital marketing,” Freeman said. “It goes back to students being Generation Z, they prefer to talk to a chat bot than to a real person. So as a result; of trying to reach different generations of Huskies, students and families, we are doing all of those things.”

Smith said ongoing downtown redevelopment also helps DeKalb look appealing to young professionals.

With the impending move of city hall from the DeKalb Municipal Building, 200 S. Fourth St., to a former downtown bank known as the Nehring Building, 164 E. Lincoln Highway, the city plans to put the whole block of Fourth Street, from Grove to to Franklin Streets on the market.

“We all dream, and I haven’t even shared this with our City Manager, but what a wonderful spot I would think for a developer to come in and perhaps do some higher end condos where some young professionals might live,” Smith said, of the soon-to-be-vacant municipal building.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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