National Citizen Survey: DeKalb may be a college town.

Yep, DeKalb did another survey last fall, this time the National Citizen Survey administered by the National Research Center at the University of Colorado. About 400 towns, cities and other jurisdictions take the same survey each year, so we not only have ratings given by our own residents but can see how DeKalb stacks up to the other participating communities when it comes to delivering city services and responding to the major issues we face.

What you’ll find here first is a quick overview of the survey methodology as well as a summary of some of the results. (Quotes come from the NCS 2006 Summary Report and/or the Staff Summary prepared for the 2/20/2006 city council workshop unless otherwise noted.) Then I’ll re-visit the DeKalb “identity crisis” issue and the downtown revitalization plan in terms of the Survey results.

The response rate to the 1200 mailed surveys was a respectable 34%, giving the survey a margin of error of five points either way. Respondents evaluated each question as excellent, good, fair or poor (EGFP) and for many of the questions the results were evaluated on a 100-point scale where “excellent” equals 100 points, “good” is worth 67 points, etc. In a separate section, respondents answered three policy questions specific to DeKalb on a 5-point scale ranging from “strongly support” to “strongly oppose.”

There are two things especially to keep in mind when it comes to results. One is that cities participating in the survey tend to be well-managed ones to begin with. The second is that the public perception of quality of life in a community is affected by perceptions of the economy as a whole–and in this survey, fully one-third of respondents answered “somewhat negative” or “very negative” to this question: “What impact, if any, do you think the economy will have on your family income in the next six months?”

Residents rated the city highest in terms of perception of public safety and delivery of city services such as emergency services, public transit, stormwater management and services for low-income people. Public safety is considered especially important:

Few mid-size cities can make the claim that its residents feel safe everywhere in the community, day and night. The perception of public safety is an important factor in promoting the revitalization of the downtown and for attracting the kinds of knowledge based industries DeKalb hopes to attract.

Residents rated the overall quality of life in DeKalb as 62% excellent or good, 38% fair or poor. This level of satisfaction is below the norm when compared to other communities, and echoes the ratings for quality of housing (Policy Question #2) and for living, raising children, and retiring in DeKalb.

Crime prevention, traffic signal timing, public parking and drinking water were also viewed below the norm as were the schools and the City’s overall image. Those surveyed felt that DeKalb does not provide a good value for the taxes paid and is lacking in employment opportunities.

If you were at the 4th Ward meeting a few weeks ago, you heard a complaint about the numbers of vehicles running red lights in town. Then you heard a city employee say that the problem might not be one of law enforcement so much as a matter of needing to change the traffic light timing. So here we have an example of their trying to incorporate Survey information into their thinking. Brownie point.

Areas where DeKalb surveyed similar to the norm include:

–Community characteristics such as sense of community, openness and acceptance towards people of diverse background, and overall quality of new development;

–Access and mobility;

–Quality of leisure services such as parks and library;

–Utility services;

–Planning and Code enforcement;

–Contact with City Employees; and

–Public trust issues such as the city’s overall direction, openness to citizen involvement and listening to citizens.

Also at the 4th Ward meeting, staff talked about stepping up code enforcement. Another Brownie point.

How about growth? Folks think that the city is growing too fast (50%) but that job opportunities are sorely lacking (76%).

Since population growth and job creation generally go hand-in-hand, reconciling this conflict between these two competing concerns is likely to be one of the most important policy issues facing City government over the next few years.

Breaking: DeKalb may be a college town

About a year ago, I worked on a political campaign for a city office. The candidate was a retired NIU professor. At an organizational meeting he was advised not to wear his Huskies sweatshirt at public appearances or otherwise play up this affiliation. I remember also that a couple of letters to the editor questioned how this person might be more loyal to NIU than to the city, as in: whose side is he on?

In a previous post we discussed Community Development Director Paul Rasmussen’s description of DeKalb as having a “fragmented self-image.”

Between these experiences, guess how I’m interpreting the results of this policy question that the city added to the Survey:

Policy Question #1: Please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with the following statement: “DeKalb is a university town in a rural setting with a vital industrial and commercial base.”

Strongly agree……………………20%
Somewhat agree…………………53%
Neither agree nor disagree….. 8%
Somewhat disagree……………. 16%
Strongly disagree………………. 3%

Maybe some people could not “strongly agree” because of the word “vital,” but that’s not the bet I would take. Is anyone willing to take a road trip with me to Madison? I don’t think they have this problem. I want to know their secret.

Wrecking ball time

From the March 24 Daily Chronicle:

The Downtown DeKalb Revitalization Task Force held its first meeting Friday at city hall. The 20-member group is made up of downtown business owners and other stakeholders, including representatives from the park district, plan commission and Main Street DeKalb.

Its job is to work with city officials and economic development consultant Hitchcock Design Group to put together a redevelopment plan for DeKalb’s downtown.

Members were given paper and crayons by Community Development Director Russ Farnum and instructed to draw their vision of downtown while brainstorming improvements they would like to see.

Steve Milner of Milner Real Estate drew a wrecking ball.

“We can’t save every building in downtown,” he said. “Not every building is a historic building.”

Where did they get the chutzpah to dream this big? Policy Question #3 on the NCS:

To what extent do you support or oppose the use of public funds to revitalize and redevelop downtown DeKalb?

Strongly support……………………32%
Somewhat support…………………40%
Neither support nor oppose……. 16%
Somewhat oppose………………….. 6%
Strongly oppose…………………….. 6%

City staff seem very excited about this. Can you blame them? This is the mother of all green lights. I happen to agree. I told Mr. Rasmussen, “Go as drastic as you need to, or don’t bother at all.”

The task force is considering a town square. Where should it go?

14 thoughts on “National Citizen Survey: DeKalb may be a college town.”

  1. I find it odd that the affiliation with NIU would be seen as negative. The university contributes greatly to the quality of life in DeKalb. It helps create jobs, well trained citizens, and strengthens the economy. So a few immature drunken morons roam the town from time to time. But that goes on EVERYWHERE, not just college towns. Seems to me DeKalbians ought to embrace the reality that DeKalb is a college town.

    As for the town square….hmmm….I don’t think it should be right out in front, set it back, surround it with the city not traffic. A town square doesnt belong at the busiest intersection in town, nor does it belong on a back alley corner. The happy medium must be found.

  2. I don’t think it’s so much the drunken morons as it is other perceptions, particularly the one where–although it is the largest employer here–NIU is seen as not paying its fair share for services.

    Also, in that reference to the quote by Rasmussen he also said that the problem has become less in the past couple years. Why would that be? Well, when I think about what the town was like when we moved here 20 years ago, you really didn’t see many people of color outside of the university area. There was no doubt some anxiety about that–I remember once on a radio debate, Mayor Sparrow was asked about the growing diversity of the population & he immediately turned the discussion to drugs & law enforcement!–but now that our neighborhoods have changed we are maybe a bit more relaxed about NIU as a neighbor, too.

    I agree that the town square should be more removed from trains & traffic–& close to NIU.

  3. Interesting post, Yinn. Gonzo.. yes. There is definitely a them(NIU) and us(town) mentality here. Name one large city function that is actually ALSO an NIU function. If there is one.. I have missed it. Yinn and I have talked about this before. We are from the same hometown..which is also a Universtiy town.
    Probably the largest of the dual functions there is the Homcoming Parade.
    This is for both the high school and the university. It is also a big deal for
    all the other town schools that have a band or organization that can put something in the parade. Many of the frats have their own floats that they do each year. It is a big bringing together of city and university. This town needs something like this.

    There is also the fact that for the most part, there are not jobs here for the NIU graduates. Students come in… they graduate.. they leave.. That does not do much for the relationship. If graduates came out of school and started contributing to DeKalb, then I think you would see better public relations. I am sure that there are some that stay. Possibly some press work by the media would make people more aware of the contributions NIU graduates are making to the town. (new graduates)

    A general spruce up the the NIU area would not hurt. It is crowded and other than the area by the pond and castle.. not that pretty. The whole area looks sort of slummy.

    As for the Town Square. I don’t think it should be closer to the U. I think it should stay within the 1st-4th st area somehow. A nice walk way, or bike path from the U to the square would be nice. I was thinking.. north of Lincoln Highway.

  4. Oooh, I like the bike path/walkway idea…nice & wide, curved, paved, tree-lined, lighted even!

    Definitely the inclusive/dual functions thing–I wonder what they are cooking up for the Sesquicentennial besides hairy faces.

  5. Yes, I have been to Cornfest. I can’t really remember… does NIU sponsor some of the events or a soundstage? Other than the beer garden and music being a good party.. not sure if it does much. Maybe if a couple of their departments put up a booth it would make more of a connection. They could have both students and proffs man the booths.

    I just don’t recall much of an NIU presence. I could have missed something, though.

  6. Charm, I’m very interested in your comments & objectivity on this. Cornfest really misses the boat in some ways as a community event, & maybe you’ve put your finger on it.

    I guess I’d say that participation by NIU students generally is kind of passive. Cornfest is kind of a “welcome back students” party by virtue of its timing, & I know people who view it that way. This could probably be a whole new thread.

  7. gonzo, you ain’t seen nothin’ til you’ve been to a Popcorn Fest–especially one from Orville Redenbacher’s hometown. ;-D

    Best part of our Cornfest IMO is the blues music. Lonnie Brooks OMG I will never forget that one.

  8. Well I guess I’m late finding this late addition to citybarbs! It seems to me that DeKalb at one time was CLOSER to NIU, professors lived in DeKalb, instructors lived in DeKalb…Now they are commuting for their 1-2 days a week here. I can’t imagine what DeKalb would be like without NIU. Maybe Rochelle, Kirklsnd, or Sandwich?
    Cornfest at one time was the yearly corn boil, celebrating the harvest season. Corn was donated by Del Monte, they had a huge presence here. It was a family event, with sidewalk sales, local food booths, some carnival games and rides for the kids. The past few years have shown a large increase of vendors from out of town, higher prices, and yes the beer garden. Someone I know had a food booth, and by the prices of the space for a booth, one can understand why the food is so high. I think DCC members get a booth discount. This probably makes it harder for the family to take the children.

  9. Having grown up in DeKalb, I can say that during my lifetime there has alway’s been a division between the town and NIU. As a town kid I went to the NIU Labratory school for grade school and junior high and we were referred to as “Lab Scabs”.

    My Dad and Grandfather had a business in Sycamore and it has always been the more charming community and down town business core. I am shocked when I see how delipadated downtown DeKalb is. For years the truly neat business community like Malone’s when Gus Malone and the Ball family owned it exist anymore. The town turned to bars and junk years ago and the core has nothing that emits charm and quality in the downtown area.

    Lincoln Highway is a mixture of fast food restaurants and decaying homes. In the 1960’s before Dutch Elm Disease it was arched and still had charm. DeKalb long ago sold out any chance of revitalizing the down town area. I agree that a wrecking ball is the best solution. When DeKalb sold the old Post Office and Malone’s turned into a bar, it was over then. Move on, enjoy Sycamore’s downtown and spend time keeping the schools and parks alive.

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