Flooding and the vitality of Metropolitan Square and downtown businesses are among the top issues facing residents of Des Plaines' 1st Ward, say the three candidates running to represent it.
Incumbent 1st Ward Alderwoman Patricia Haugeberg, newcomer candidate Robert Giurato, and Des Plaines Public Library board trustee Steven Mokry are vying for the seat on April 9.
Haugeberg, 63, who is completing her first term in office, said the city needs to focus its efforts on bringing the types of businesses that residents would support in Metropolitan Square and downtown.
"Any business that would come to downtown Des Plaines, it needs to be something that the residents are looking for that are within walking distance of it," she said.
Haugeberg said the exodus of businesses from Metropolitan Square has a lot to do with the economy, yet added, the city has been fortunate to retain a majority of the restaurants in downtown.
"There's empty storefronts and empty buildings everywhere, not just Des Plaines," Haugeberg said.
She said the city is on the right track with its three business incentive programs geared at retaining businesses in downtown or helping them relocate there.
Downtown 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.
"I am a firm believer that to attract businesses as other communities have done, just like with the sale of a home, you need to create the curb appeal," Haugeberg said. "And that's what we've been working on too."
As for alleviating flooding, Haugeberg said there's light at the end of the tunnel with the influx of casino revenue. She supports using that money for future infrastructure needs, such as building bigger storm sewers and separating combined sewers.
Giurato, 64, a civil engineer who has worked on flood control issues and storm sewers much of his career, said his top priority is to work with the city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies to try to lessen the impact of flooding.
"I myself live in the flood plain in Des Plaines," Giurato said. "It really has a devastating effect on people who never flooded or never will flood, because if you refinance your house or if you take a mortgage in this area, you have to get flood insurance. For me, it's $1,300 a year, just the flood insurance."
Giurato said he would like the city to finish phase two of the Levee 50 project. That involves building larger sewers and implementing a flood control system for residential areas west of the Des Plaines River.
"I've lived here 30 years and there's been four major floods," Giurato said, adding that some residents have been forced out of their homes for seven months. "I'm not saying we can stop flooding. The Big Bend (Lake Reservoir) and some of those subdivisions were put in before they really had comprehensive flood plain ideas. (It's) unlikely they can ever be totally out of a flood plain, unless you do significant amounts of berms, walls and retention ponds."
Giurato said the city may not be able to do much to ensure Metropolitan Square's survival.
"It really came in with high hopes and here we are six, seven years later and half the stores are gone already," Giurato said. "I'm not sure that I can do anything. I need to make sure that the city's rules and regulations aren't adversely impacting that mall. It's something that needs to succeed. You can't have an empty mall right in the heart of the city, especially when you've got all those condos. There should be a lot of successful businesses there."
Mokry, 53, said flood insurance has become a huge burden on homeowners in the 1st Ward. He said Des Plaines has the largest cluster of flood insurance policies issued in the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been trying to buy out more and more homes along the Des Plaines River.
"Residents are paying $2,000 a year for flood insurance," he said. As a result, people have less money to spend, he said.
"Now you have reason to see why businesses fail because there's so much money being paid into homeownership costs, plus they are under water, and businesses are struggling because they don't have the money."
Mokry said Metropolitan Square needs changes to improve its visibility.
"Accessibility into Metropolitan Square is the number one complaint," Mokry said, adding that removing the center circle within the square would help traffic move through easier.
Mokry said he also is concerned about the residential base in downtown turning more transient with foreclosures and with condominiums that were designed for homeownership being converted into rental units.
"The city planners, economic and community development, they need to understand that they are dealing with a large percentage of people, 40 percent maybe, of downtown residents in Des Plaines are short-term. One-year lease then out. And that was never conceived for a lot of these businesses or future businesses that come in to be dealing with that demographic and the impact of short-term businesses and short-term residents."