Des Plaines needs to be aggressive, create more tax incentives, and provide fiscal and organizational stability to attract new businesses to town, say the three mayoral hopefuls vying for the seat in April.
The race pits former Des Plaines mayor Tony Arredia against two sitting aldermen, Matt Bogusz (3rd Ward) and Mark Walsten (6th Ward) in the April 9 consolidated election.
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Former Mayor Marty Moylan resigned his post Dec. 31 and was sworn in as state representative in the new 55th House District in January.
During a Daily Herald interview this week, Arredia touted his past success with bringing in businesses into the downtown area and the industrial district.
Arredia said he had not been through downtown Des Plaines in a while and was surprised to see the number of vacancies in Metropolitan Square.
"I don't think this administration spent enough time courting businesses," Arredia said, adding when he left office in 2009, Metropolitan Square was 80 percent occupied.
He added Metropolitan Square businesses are struggling to pay high rents and he believes the city should offer financial help to ease their burdens.
Arredia retired as mayor in April 2009 due to voter-imposed limits on consecutive terms. He was the 8th Ward alderman for six years before being appointed Mayor Jan. 5, 2000, replacing Mayor Paul W. Jung, who died in office, in October 1999.
Since leaving office, Arredia, 75, has been working as director of government relations for Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, a job he said he will relinquish if elected.
Arredia said he favors providing more business incentives to companies wanting to locate in town.
"Businesses have got to feel like you're a friend," he said. "I guarantee I'll have that Metropolitan Square filled up in a year."
Walsten, 55, who runs a home inspection business and is in the middle of his second term, believes the Des Plaines Theatre's revival is key to increasing foot traffic in downtown and could serve as an economic engine for the area.
Walsten also would like to see the theater and other downtown buildings become part of a historic preservation district, making them eligible for a federal income tax credit.
Walsten, chairmen of the city's engineering and public safety committee and vice chair of the community development committee, is less optimistic about the city being able to fill vacancies in Metropolitan Square.
"You're never really going to fill up those vacant storefronts if you are charging above and beyond what the people in the area are charging (for rent)," Walsten said. "There's only so much cities can do."
Walsten said the city can try to be creative with its tax increment financing funds -- money generated by special taxing districts to help revitalize the area -- but can't really use the money to bail out businesses struggling with high rents. He would rather use such funds to help promote downtown.
"There's a lot of opportunity for growth in downtown Des Plaines," said Walsten, who supports what cities like Mount Prospect and Rosemont have done to reinvent themselves with projects like the rebuilding of Randhurst and the creation of the MB Financial Park At Rosemont.
Walsten said if elected mayor, he would push for the redevelopment of the O'Hare Lakes property off Devon Avenue. Walsten said the property owner has an ambitious plan to develop the site into offices, retail, a motel and entertainment area. He supports creating a special use taxing area to help the project move forward.
Bogusz said the city needs to lead by example to earn the respect of businesses.
"In 2009, we were near bankruptcy," said Bogusz, 26, the city's finance committee chairman who previously served on the Des Plaines Public Library board and is completing his first term as alderman. "What sensible business wants to move into a community that is not fiscally sound."
Bogusz said over the last four years the city has paid down $20 million in bonded debt, increased its reserves from roughly $1 million to $18 million, and avoided raising the property tax levy in the last three years.
Every city department that deals with businesses needs to be predictable and expedient so that the process flows smoothly, he said.
"We want to tear down the obstacles," Bogusz said, adding that the city needs to create business incentives that are competitive with neighboring communities.
Downtown Des Plaines businesses currently are eligible to apply for up to $40,000 in grants from the city for interior building renovations, and facade and awning improvements.
As for Metropolitan Square, Bogusz doesn't believe the city can bring businesses to downtown and retain them, if the market doesn't support it.
"The market needs to correct itself," he said. "We've seen what happens when we try and strong-arm the market and what we get are vacant storefronts in Metropolitan Square."