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Article updated: 2/8/2013 12:04 AM

Non-incumbents have ideas for St. Charles' First Street

Alderman hopefuls debate St. Charles First Street future

By James Fuller

St. Charles' First Street Development was supposed to be the crown jewel of the downtown. But years of delays in financing after the economic collapse have left the project mired at a cubic zirconium level of progress.

Several candidates for aldermen said Thursday night it may be time to blow up the development deal and start over.

The non-incumbent candidates for St. Charles aldermen had a rare chance to take the stage by themselves Thursday night at St. Charles VFW Post No. 5036.

Candidates all agreed the First Street project has fueled the commercial boom city officials envisioned. That includes former Ward 1 Alderman Ron Silkaitis, who is challenging incumbent Jon Monken to return to the city council.

"I'm just not sure about it," Silkaitis said. "I voted for it. I admit it. It looked good on paper. But maybe we can do better. I don't have a full answer yet. The existing businesses and parking deck are doing well, but there's still a hunk of property by the river that's just sitting there. I'd like to see something done with it, preferably with tax benefits for the city."

Newcomer Justin Osborne also seeks the Ward 1 seat. He said First Street is a vital centerpiece for the city and the downtown.

He agrees the property shouldn't just sit there, unless that's what residents want. Osborne said residents should be solicited for their views on what should happen to the property.

Art Lemke is challenging incumbent Cliff Carrignan for a seat in Ward 2. Lemke said he doesn't view the First Street development as a total loss. The streetscape surrounding the property, as well as the underlying infrastructure, has seen major upgrades that will benefit any development on the site, he said.

But Lemke also believes tax increment financing, where property taxes going to local governments are frozen at a certain level and taxes above that go into the development, has been overused in the city, including in the languishing First Street project.

He said refinancing of debt is the only thing that's kept the project from being a major burden on the city's finances, and even the time bought by that move is running out.

Ward 3 challenger Mario VanDerHeyden said looking at the First Street project brings back painful memories of successful places to eat and shop that used to exist.

VanDerHeyden said the city has an overall problem with a lack of fiscal responsibility and little understanding of what it takes to run or attract business. As a businessman who handles more than $100 million in contracts, VanDerHeyden said, he can bring some of those qualities to the table. He is opposed by incumbent William Turner.

Ward 5 challenger Kim Malay said it might be time to get out of the current development deal.

She favors setting up overall development guidelines for the property, then letting the parcels self-develop with smaller, individual development projects rather than one massive overall development company. However, she's also open to the idea of letting all or some of the property convert to green space for public use if that's what residents want along the riverfront.

Malay is running against incumbent Maureen Lewis.

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