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NIU's Center for Governmental Studies celebrates 50 years of regional improvement

DeKALB – When Diana Robinson was in graduate school, she drove every single street in the city of Chicago for a “windshield survey,” gathering data and interviewing everyone from block club presidents to bank presidents to better assess community needs.

It’s that type of work, she said, that inspires her in her fifth year as the director of Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies. The center is celebrating 50 years of data collection, research and civic engagement in the region.

“The idea of public service has always appealed to me,” Robinson said Friday in her center office in NIU’s Monat building, the old Rice Hotel in downtown DeKalb that also is home to a number of other community programs.

“[The survey] was to get a sense of the communities and infrastructure, just to understand the issues and opportunities,” Robinson continued. “I fell in love with Chicago and with trying to figure out how to help support people’s pursuits of their own dreams.”

Over the past five decades, the Center for Governmental Studies has built a reputation for being one of the state’s go-to resources for public and private partnerships, data-mining, research and consulting. It’s a registered state data center (The only other one is the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Robinson said.) It’s home to a branch of the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the same spot the Rice Hotel once stood, the Center for Government Studies, 138 E. Locust St. (founded in 1969) resides in the 35,100-square-foot William R. Monat building. Its foundation was spurred by a period of civil unrest in the 1960s, according to NIU documents, and a mandate by the federal government to merge higher education and learning with solving economic and social problems.

It seems fitting that the center now falls under NIU’s Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development.

Robinson said at the crux of the center’s mission is improvement across the region academically, socially, financially and economically.

“The sum total of all those efforts are what leads to regional development,” she said. “Where we are focused on how we can help increase prosperity and quality of life for the residents in the region. And for us, that’s pretty much north of Interstate 88 and everything west of Chicago.”

The center also offers professional and comprehensive consulting services to local municipalities.

Recent examples include the city of DeKalb’s Annie Glidden North Revitalization taskforce; overseeing a daylong strategic planning workshop for the city council; or a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp., which assessed housing, business, employment and economic trends among others.

The center is the reason that the Illinois Department of Transporation now can use a digital database that tracks material inventory and storage locations across the state. Or why Starved Rock State Park has options for the future, because of a 2019 report and extensive public surveying.

Norm Walzer, senior research scholar, has been with the center for 13 years and often is one of the behind-the-scenes faces compiling reports for clients. His secret? Bringing students in on the process.

“I perceive the center as being a laboratory,” Walzer said. “You don’t usually have a social science lab, and this is really a place where students from social sciences or other disciplines can come and do research projects, test out theories, hopefully get publications. I think it helps their résumé.”

Walzer has known of the center for its 50-year history. His first encounter with it was when he became acquainted with its former director at a constitutional convention during his time as a graduate student at the University of Illinois.

“I think what we do here is really more unique, in [the] sense that you look at the problem, you research it, you tailor it,” he said. “As an academic institution, we do research, [and] hopefully we bring students along with us.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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