College towns often benefit from those who study there, but not many NIU students are visiting DeKalb’s downtown district. So city officials went to them directly to see how they can change this trend.
Like many cities of its size, DeKalb has a well-defined downtown district that’s home to many businesses and attractions. Economic Development coordinator Jason Michnick says they’ve also been working to constantly improve it.
“If you go back historically, there was a group called Renew DeKalb that looked at economic development efforts downtown. The city’s also done two different downtown planning studies," he says.
The studies examined the land and possible redevelopment opportunities, but found that not many students frequented downtown attractions at night and on the weekends. Believing part of this was due to a lack of communication between NIU and DeKalb, the city manager set up meetings last spring between local government and the student body. Student Senate Speaker Christine Wang says it started out small.
“As the year went on, I got a little more settled to my role and we started to talk more about the issues that were facing students and the city of DeKalb and trying to connect the two of them together," she said.
This started with a constant group of about 10 leaders meeting monthly, but in February, the city met with about 70 students at a downtown restaurant. Michnick says the biggest issue they identified was transportation.
"Most of the dorms are on the west side of campus, so that’s quite a walk for them to get downtown."
These students could hypothetically walk downtown via Lincoln Highway, but Michnick says it isn’t an ideal route.
"There’s no buffer between the sidewalk and the road," he explains. "There’s also the vacant piece of land that’s also a mental obstruction between the downtown and campus."
These two factors, Wang says, contribute to a lack of interest.
“If you wanted to go to the bars, or if you wanted to eat dinner or something like that, it’s going to be very hard to get there if you don’t have a car, if there’s no bus, if there’s not a lot of lighting. So there’s just a lack of transportation, a lack of a feeling between the students and for the city of DeKalb as well.”
She contrasts this with the retail corridor between DeKalb and Sycamore which includes several big box stores.
“Because there’s a bus that goes out there, that area is a lot more widely used for students even though it is 10 minutes out of the way from the center of campus.”
In addition to the larger meeting, students got a guided tour of some of the area’s attractions. In Wang’s case, it was her first exposure to the DeKalb public library. Caleb Tomaszewski, who directs government affairs for the student association, didn’t go to the Egyptian Theater until he heard about their Mel Brooks Film Series.
“I just never thought to even look at the Egyptian before someone even said that, but now since going there once, sadly I’m graduating. If I wasn’t, I would continually look back at the Egyptian and see what they now have.”
Since then, the smaller group has worked up several proposals for improving transportation, such as expanding Huskie Bus or TransVac services to the area. As for getting the word out about what downtown offers, Wang suggests thinking in terms of a “communiversity.”
“If we were to have more of a local job fair of an internship fair, that would keep students within the community, that would keep students engaged, students here on campus, and much more likely to interact with the community. “
Michnick acknowledges, however, that reaching the entire student body will require a more diverse communication strategy.
"It really is a kind of multi-faceted approach that needs to be taken, whether it’s through e-mail or social media. Then, with social media, there are several avenues and platforms you need to be on; Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat--all those. Also, going back and doing paper fliers is another way."
The student group will now meet with the city council on a regular basis, and all parties hope to turn these downtown ideas into action plans. Michnick hopes for even more.
"They’re the largest demographic in DeKalb. There’s roughly 20,000 enrolled students at NIU and we need to get their input on a lot of other issues besides how to turn around the downtown area and increase business and foot traffic."