Last year, the DeKalb City Council decided not to cancel its Dec. 19 workshop meeting for the holidays. Instead, they discussed issues that had arisen with the Keating brouhaha-ha project to decide if they should make changes to industrial development policy.

The motives were the best, but you can see from the minutes that they in fact decided nothing. At one point Mayor Van Buer asked the council not to get bogged down in details, but to think out 20-30 years ahead in order to formulate policy. If another train hadn’t come by, I swear you would have heard crickets chirping. The silence was stunning.

It’s obvious that DeKalb is having trouble with envisioning its future. This is not new, and seems to stem from a lack of strong identity. As I was reviewing Growth Summit material, I came across this tidbit from a Regional Planning Commission Meeting in 2003:

Mr. Nicklas asked if DeKalb had come any closer to being able to define and articulate what they want to look like and how they see themselves. Mr. Rasmussen [DeKalb Community Development Dept., also member of the Planning Commission] noted that the City was still extremely conflicted in this respect, having only recently (within the past 2 years) come to accept itself as a college town. He went on to add that in all his previous experiences, the towns he dealt with had a clear view of who they wanted to be. DeKalb, however, continues to be fragmented in its self-image. Mr. Nicklas asked how DeKalb was addressing the question, noting that he had never seen it addressed in a public venue. Mr. Rasmussen responded that the City had recently hired NIU to conduct a survey of a random group of DeKalb citizens to see if some pattern could be developed. Because this will be handled scientifically, it should shed some light on real feelings about growth and identity.

So this is why the Council approved $7,000 for a citizen survey to supplement the input of the Summit Committee members. But did it yield any useful information? Let’s look.

The telephone survey was administered by the Public Opinion Lab of the Center for Governmental Studies at NIU and completed in April 2003. It was random-dialed to DeKalb prefixes except for 752 & 753 (NIU) and 404 surveys were completed, 18 of them in Spanish. The cooperation rate was high–87%–and the overall margin of error was established at +/-4 points.

In terms of general attitudes about DeKalb, nearly 80% of respondents said the DeKalb was either a good or very good place to live. Nearly 90% said the preservation of open space, such as parks and farmland, is important.

Most supported future growth: 57% said growth would make DeKalb a more desirable place to live, and the ones who thought it wouldn’t brought up overcrowding of public facilities, including schools, as their worry. Those who supported growth wanted more commercial and industrial development, not residential. Nearly 50% thought that a population under 50,000 was ideal and over 80% supported a target population of under 60,000.

Whether respondents wanted commercial or industrial growth, whether they thought growth would make the city more or less desirable as a place to live, and whether they wanted slow growth (10% per decade) or moderate growth (25% per decade) depended mainly on three factors: how long they’d lived here, whether they rented or owned their homes, and whether or not they had dependent children. As you can imagine, the long-lived homeowners with children were the party-poopers of the “fast” crowd. Homeowners also tended to favor industrial growth over additional shopping opportunities.

By the way, I found the Daily Chronicle’s coverage of the results kind of weird. Besides playing up the “pro-growth” vs. “anti-growth” angle–which to me is a non sequitur since the vast majority favors slow to moderate growth–they did not report responses to the jobs question.

That’s right. The survey covered workforce development, too:

–60% prefer high skill jobs
–52% prefer high paying jobs
–12% prefer a mix of jobs
–1.5% prefer no new jobs

Remember that number above where 57% of respondents thought growth would make DeKalb a more desirable place to live? Do you think that they had an increase in jobs in mind? Well, about 30% of them did, but over 40% said that their increased desire to live in DeKalb hinged on more shopping and entertainment options. (The remainder wanted to expand the tax base.)

One of the reasons I mention this is because of how Smart Growth people have been vilified for “chasing away jobs” in opposing the Keating project. But looky here; I don’t see desperation if we’re prioritizing shopping over jobs. Also, the report mentions that the party-pooper homeowners are more likely to make more than $40,000 per year and to commute 40-54 miles to get it. What this all tells me is that more people would like to work and live in the same city. And/or they want their NIU-graduated children to stick around town.

So who are we and where are we going and why am I in this handbasket? Frankly, I’m not sure that this survey–or the rest of the Growth Summit process, for that matter–really resolved much of our “identity crisis.” I don’t think it was meant to. I think that Mr. Sparrow called the Summit because of resistance to projects like Savannah Green and he wanted to get a handle on the new mood in the community. The Summit did, however, bring us the concept of linking residential development with commercial and industrial growth for a more equitable sharing of the tax burden, and it signaled the desire for more managed growth. That, and a dandy downtown, and a limit on the warehouse barons might get us somewhere in repairing our fractured self-image.

By the way, remember Sparrow saying at the Target warehouse groundbreaking that building out Park 88 would result in meeting the 50/50 tax share target (as in: residential contributes 50%, and industrial and commercial contributes 50%)? I asked Paul Rasmussen if that were still a true assessment today. He said, “Yes and no.” We’ll hit the target but won’t stay there long if Cortland and Malta keep building houses like crazy.