Downtown DeKalb Changes Could Bring Economic Upswing

Jul 5, 2018

Changes are coming to downtown DeKalb after years of stagnant growth. It’s officially one month until the new Cornerstone Project is slated to finish construction. The luxury apartment complex is developed by John Pappas, who says that he’s received more interest than he has the space for.

"We have 170 applicants, we only have 51 units," said Pappas. "So now that we’re pretty much wrapping things up, we’re going to start assigning leases this week and more than likely we’re going to have people moving in Aug. 1."

This means Cornerstone will be open before the fall school semester.

DeKalb’s economy is interwoven with Northern Illinois University. Most business ventures take into consideration the flow of fall students, and the university itself provides countless jobs for the community.

NIU enrollment dropped nearly 5 percent last semester, continuing with a decline that started in the early 2000’s.

Attracting students to DeKalb means having the necessary housing and entertainment options, says Pappas.

Cornerstone’s ground level will be home to Barb City Bagels and Tavern on Lincoln. They are scheduled to open near the beginning of August as well. Later this fall, Pappas says construction will begin at Plaza DeKalb, which will house 23 additional apartments and a specialty grocery store.

Pappas said he hopes the apartments will positively affect DeKalb’s economy.

"I think it’s a wash. I’ve lived here for 45 or 46 years and NIU isn’t doing us any favors, enrollment is way down and at the end of the day, we are a college town," Pappas said. "I think now that they have the right management in place, I think things will turn around and I see a lot of positive things happening in the community itself."

Pappas said that a quarter of the Cornerstone applicants are NIU students. The other seventy five percent are non-students, some moving in from other towns.

Take a walk across the street from the Cornerstone construction zone and you’ll find another business venture that’s becoming a household name.

Common Grounds, at a glance, is a coffee shop.  It sits quaintly at its newest location in DeKalb’s downtown. Its original location, situated just a few doors down on Lincoln Highway, was condemned due to structural issues. Jeff Foster is owner of Common Grounds. He is usually found in the kitchen preparing orders:

"We have more space so we can make things like smoothies better, faster, we have storage space we didn’t have before, and the overall being more like a bistro, that’s kind of what I had in mind for the place but we just never had the space to do it," he said.

The business works with a local church to funnel some of its funds into charitable causes. It started only two years ago, shortly after Foster and his family moved to DeKalb from the Southwestern side of Chicago in 2015.

Foster said that in addition to selling books, pastries, food items and coffee, he wants the shop to eventually evolve into a community center.

"Part of the idea was to come to DeKalb and get to know DeKalb. And I started out actually for backyard barbeques-- just neighborly stuff," Foster said. "I got a sense from them right away that what people really love is downtown, but they really, really don’t like the downtown anymore. And I came down and I went to a few places and there’s some good places down here but there’s a lot of vacancies and a lot of sense of abandonment. People are just trying to avoid downtown almost," he said.

Foster said he saw a need for a place in DeKalb to connect with others in the spirit of community and inspiration. He said his success so far is because the people of DeKalb “get it.”

"We don’t do any serious advertising. Everything’s always been word of mouth, organic, that’s the approach we took. We consider this mission work and the business funds it. So now we’re actually in a position because of the space to do more mission work. I’m looking forward using those off days to do invest more in the community, and raise more money for things that I really, really believe need to be happening," Foster said.

Jason Michnick is DeKalb’s Economic Development Planner. He says that there’s evidence that shows the city is on an economic upswing.

"I really do think that we’re starting to around a corner and improve. I think that things have been in decline and stagnated for about eight years or so following the recession, but there does seem to be some momentum," he said.

Common Grounds is having its grand re-opening next week on Monday, July 9, that will include a ribbon cutting ceremony with city officials.