Growth Summit: The Survey

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.

7 thoughts on “Growth Summit: The Survey”

  1. As a member of the Growth Summit committee, thanks.

    I opposed spending the $7,000 for this survey. The follow through on such tax-payer funded studies has always lacked and I did not want to be part of any further waste of money.

    Controversy increases single copy sales for daily newspapers thus the Chronicle’s coverage of the growth summit. But hey, that’s why citybarbs is a valuable asset to this community… another perspective.

    We (the committee) did discuss the workforce development results from the survey but, consistent with this committee, no commitment to follow through was made. With a median HOUSEHOLD income in the neighborhood of $40,000 it is not surprising that most DeKalb residents want higher skill and higher paying jobs. The fact that we had to pay $7,000 to be told this suggests to me that perhaps we need to improve in some skills.

    I was not aware that DeKalb has an identity crisis. As long as I’ve lived here most locals have thought it is a college town. But with what we pay the staff over at the annex building we should expect them to expand our vocabulary with new words like Communiversity. I guess its some job justification.

    Some of us old timers remember the DeKalb-born word, Exurbia, and the fancy full color brochures with that headline.

    Cortland and Malta would not have near as many houses being built in them if DeKalb hadn’t have handed them the opportunity. Neither community has the infrastructure or amenities DeKalb offers but when DeKalb shut down residential growth, before the growth summit, Cortland and Malta became the supply for the demand.

    Did you all know that DeKalb County’s Comprehensive and Land Use Plan was voted the best in the state? This plan calls for all residential development to be restricted to the incorporation (annexation) of municipalities. There are very sound reasons to support this plan.

    In terms of theory versus practice there seems to be a disconnect. The largest municipality in the county has shunned all residential growth since 2002. The smaller and rural communities, lacking in infrastructure, now appear to have a lot of momentum going. And those who are adding rooftops are also expanding their commercial tax base. Their also adding to their infrastructure through their annexations which has enabled them to accomodate the commercial and industrial site needs that otherwise they could not have.

    DeKalb sure has been a good neighbor.

  2. I (& I’m sure I’m not speaking just for myself) am quite familiar with the Comp Plan & support it as I do any effort to think beyond next week.

    “Exurbia?”–almost as funny to me as the giant blue “DeKalb 3D” graphic on the Comprehensive Plan! Personally I, too–a 20-year resident–always thought DeKalb was a college town. I wonder if there’s an oblique meaning to Rasmussen’s “fragmented self-image” remark & how much it has to do with DCEDC bringing in projects that are inconsistent with the Comp Plan–but then, I’m admittedly fixated on the yeah-the-Plan-calls-for-diverse-growth-but-we’re-traitors-if-we-say-no-to-anything-[warehouse] situation.

    Whatever the problem is I’d like to see a city someone break the ice with some sort of long-term big-picture vision. I suspect Van Buer has ideas but he’s playing the role of facilitator & hasn’t yet succeeded in coaxing the rest of the council out of reactive mode yet. IMO part of it is shock at what happened with Keating: defensiveness, wanting to dissect that situation, etc. Part of it is habit (of which approving survey after survey is surely a symptom). Also there really are holes in the fabric of information they have at their disposal that must be remedied. That said, council has to distinguish better between the requisite care & caution in growing individual “trees”–more of which should be left to the city staff, anyway–& the relative boldness required to get on with the landscape plan for the whole “forest.”

    Back to speaking of the Comp Plan, most of the survey results got incorporated into it but notably not the workforce stuff, so nobody can point to it & argue, “Hey, people want higher-skill, higher-paying jobs [than what warehouse-only employment can bring].” Then, there are two areas that are included in the Plan that everybody ignores when a company comes to town: diversity in growth, and fiscal impact analyses. Some people think that we should be primarily a warehouse community, & some believe that fiscal impact analyses would be a waste of time and money. Whether or not I agree, council either has to uphold these policies or concede that they are dumb/bad/unrealistic/wasteful ideas & publicly renounce & remove them, not forget or ignore them.

  3. p.s. Had to chew on this other thing separately. I can see where you’re saying that DeKalb’s putting the brakes on residential development created demand/pressure/incentives for Cortland & Malta to pick up the ball. However, I can’t fault DeKalb for the moratorium; it seems prudent to hash things out sometimes. Also I think it would be ironic if the same people who accused Greg Sparrow & his cronies of ignoring the needs of the school system vis a vis DeKalb residential building projects were not also to condemn Cortland’s lack of restraint in this regard.

  4. Thanks for the info on the Growth Summit, in my mind it was time taken to make it look like something was being accomplished, but in reality it was just gathering information, making certain people feel like the city had done something out of the ordinary.
    If I told you how long I have lived in (and just outside) DeKalb ya all would know how old I am, so we won’t go there! Would actually like being annexed in, some neighbors here not keen on that idea.
    Now, going back to the warehouse workshop, Mayor Van Buers opening statement said it all. (Since I didn’t have a tape recorder on, this is by memory.) Regarding the Keating plan, maybe this wasn’t the best land use for that area, and maybe the comp plan needed to be looked at. All land should be looked at in a case by case study.

    Back in September I met a lady married to an NIU Phd.in the sciences. At a welcoming function to DeKalb, she asked a city official if any high tech was coming to DeKalb, and a city
    official told her “No, our destination was warehousing.” That is like a sentence. Like, where’s the diversity?

    Growth summit type panels might be the way to judge every major development that wants to change the way we know DeKalb, before going to the council vote. Better still, since we just got Park 88, why not assess the situation and the good and bad that may come along with it, and adjust the comp plan after those types of major changes. Target is to open this March, and there are several available sites there. There are a lot of available sites and empty buildings.

    Another thing we recommended to the city planners was to use the computerized model to see potential problems on paper before it could destroy the town. NIU actually has this too. The article we gave them, was from the U of I.

  5. yinn… I suppose I’m one of those Sparrow cronies, some would never see it differently. Of course, with the size of my ego, I think I’m just trying to help.

    Sparrow put a freeze on residential prior to the formation of the Growth Summit committee. Its never been lifted. How many more years and paid studies do we need?

    A few weeks ago the building and development community listened to a talk by Mayor Van Buer at Lincoln Inn. He told them that he wanted them to get active in redeveloping the older parts of town. So they inquired. A week later city council passed a moratorium, recommended by staff, on redeveloping the older parts of town. Send too many mixed messages to the people willing to invest in development and they will invest elsewhere. I personally think we’re paying the staff a little too much for that kind of performance.

    Ing… I agree with your thoughts on Park 88. I think they should let that play out a bit before bringing any more logistics parks into the fold. Supposedly, if developed fully, Park 88 alone would give us that 50/50 mix.

    I do think its important to consider the real reason, IMHO, we’re fishing so hard for logistics: To help our schools. They’ve been getting most of the TIF money for several years now. The entire focus for guiding DeKalb’s future has been the schools needs. The top five property tax payers in DeKalb, per building, in 2004 was: 1) Good Year ($7.6M EAV), Nestle ($7.4M), Panduit ($5.4M) 3M ($5.1M) and Monsanto ($5M). Four out of the top 5 were logistics… its not jobs driving logistics, its schools.

  6. Mac, I did not intend to paint you as a Sparrow crony–can’t imagine you being anyone’s bee-yotch or anything close to it! I was speaking more generally, just trying to point out that Sparrow–justly or not–was criticized in some circles as a person who would say yes to any developer for any project; and that one need look no further than Cortland to see that very thing happening.

    Yes, Mr. Rassmussen did confirm that a built-out Park 88 could bring us our targeted 50/50 tax mix–but that this depends in large part on how much actually gets built in Cortland & Malta.

    I don’t think the redevelopment moratorium will last long–hope not–just seems they need to get a handle on whether they should insist on single-family or allow some multi-family units. The moratorium seems to be a response to neighborhood feedback, not a bad thing as long as they make up their minds.

Leave a Reply